Reviewed by Ursula Pflug
Educator and spoken word artist Kate Kelly's debut novel A Harsh and Private Beauty follows a family of Irish immigrants to prohibition-era Chicago. Progeny of a family uprooted from the culture and tradition of their native Ireland, brothers Michael and Daniel Kenny take to the mean streets to forge a living. Well, Michael anyway. He urges his little brother, always the bright one, to stay in school while he and his friends struggle to navigate the emerging gang culture. Becoming a rum-running gang’s accountant isn’t quite what we’d imagined for sensitive Danny, but life sometimes foils our expectations and that’s an underlying theme of Kelly’s—do we become embittered or adapt to reduced or changed circumstances?
The Kenny brothers’ story is intercut with that of Danny's granddaughter, Ruby Grace, a jazz and opera singer in almost modern-day Montreal and Toronto. While she is ambitious and doesn't yearn for the conventional role of wife and mother, she doesn't quite believe her singing teacher, the legendary Alfred La Liberté, when he tells her she is a good enough soprano to perform on the stages of Europe. Classes are expensive, and the scholarship he is sure she will be granted if she applies to McGill seems out of reach to her middle-class parents, and so Ruby Grace settles. She has no great love for her first husband, John Grace, who she describes simply as "a good man." Later she meets Leland James who is the antithesis of settling; with him, she finds untrammelled mutual desire, a mutual love for music, and a true meeting of souls. She loves her children but often feels she would have been better off a few decades later when she could have had a life focused solely on Leland and on her burgeoning singing career as a jazz and blues artist, which have turned out to be more accessible than opera. She shares all of this with hergranddaughter Lisa on a train to Chicago when she is in reality too fragile already to make the trip. She succumbs to a stroke while underway but not before she has shared a secret with Lisa she’s never told anyone.
Ruby Grace tells Lisa throughout that she has no regrets. Each choice we make contributes to who we are in the present moment and we must accept that even our poor ones gave birth to our present selves and we would not exist without them. Ruby reminds us of this often and we admire her guts and strength even though we understand it might have been difficult to be one of her less-loved husbands or her child. Kudos to Kelly for creating a believable and unforgettable heroine who isn’t always likeable, but remains sympathetic even when she’s not. Complexity is the underpinning of life and Kelly doesn’t shy away from acknowledging this truth. The novel’s title is from a quote taken from E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and this tells us much of the perspective Kelly wished to impart.
Daniel Kenny is in some ways the most sympathetic character, a man who has survived the battlefields of WWI and gang warfare in Chicago, eventually relocating his family including Ruby to Montreal where he works hard to protect them from all he has seen. He feels great love for those under his protection and yet throughout the book we wonder if he too did not deserve the true meeting of souls that his granddaughter, the firebrand Ruby so avidly slurps up.
This fascinating novel includes much in the way of insight into Capone’s Chicago and the ways in which young men may become involved in gangs when there is little else on the table. A fine book, hopping back and forth through time, showing us how even loving tightly knit families both coddle and thwart us, sometimes both at once.
A Harsh and Private Beauty is published by Inanna Publications.