Review: The Blue Book by AL Kennedy
Jonathan Cape, €20.70
As regular readers of this page will be aware, I am an AL Kennedy fan, having already given overwhelmingly positive notices to her two preceding novels, 2004's Paradise and 2007's Day.
Writing as someone who has read all of this Scottish writer's previous novels and short-story collections, and been an avid promoter of and enthusiastic proselytiser for them, sometimes to the point of heroine-worshipping partisanship, it gives no pleasure to opine that The Blue Book is, by a long way, the weakest fiction in an otherwise dazzling oeuvre.
The plot is simple, verging on trite: a middle-aged woman goes on a transatlantic cruise with her attentive boyfriend, meets a roguish ex-lover en voyage, and leaves her boyfriend for her ex. The woman is Elizabeth Caroline Barber, the boyfriend is plain old Derek, and the ex is Arthur Peter Lockwood. Elizabeth, formerly Beth, is temporarily fleeing the UK, in flight from her past, which mostly means the life she shared with the charismatic Arthur, when she partnered him in touring church halls as mediums, perfecting the arcane but also practical skills utilised by believable frauds in facilitating the bereft and bereaved to contact their deceased loved ones on "the other side". When Elizabeth finally rejected what once seemed an intoxicating game as merely an unpardonable series of tawdry crimes, Arthur continued his search for the right way to do wrong, or to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. He now subsidises free closure for the traumatised and dispossessed (eg Agathe in Montreal, a survivor of Rwandan ethnic cleansing, while her husband and son were not) by preying on the super-rich (eg Peri Arpagian in New York, a widow still missing her passed-on, self-made mining industrialist and environmental polluting husband, Mels), and does very well for himself too, into the bargain. Elizabeth and Arthur still met occasionally, for weekends of sexual oblivion, but their desperate affection lacerated as much as it consoled. Thus, poor Derek, who is "perfectly adequate", and may be planning to propose marriage, but spends most of the crossing in bed with seasickness, not helped by the fact that after Elizabeth encounters Arthur she starts substituting anodyne but ineffective medication for his seasick tablets.
So, why doesn't it work? All the usual stylistic ticks and familiar techniques are present and correct: the italics to indicate interior monologue and/or sarcastically toned stream of consciousness; the bold type for emphasis within those excursions; the short, sometimes one-sentence, sometimes even one-word paragraphs; the rhetorical repetitions. These have proved invaluable resources before, but such devices have grown over-familiar through overuse, and should perhaps be pressed into action more sparingly. As it is, they are beginning both to look and sound like emotional incontinence, a literary running off at the mouth, or mind. Of course, it can be argued that this modus operandi provides an accurate representation in prose of Elizabeth's thought processes and how she feels, an appropriate matching of style to content, but the close juxtapositioning of reams of lazy, loose writing with wonderfully arresting insights wrapped in poetic phrasing is highly frustrating. Kennedy fails to, ahem, strike a happy medium. There is also the fact that Elizabeth's situation doesn't seem to warrant such neurotic flights.
The downgrading of Derek from harmless stooge to petulant control freak is convenient but contrived, and ultimately self-serving. The sporadic direct addressing of the reader in the second person singular, as a performer would an audience, is far from innovative, featuring prominently as it did in Jay McInerney's 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City, and is a staple of postmodern fiction, for example Italo Calvino's 1979 masterpiece, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. Besides which, the "you" addressed switches willy-nilly between being the reader and Elizabeth talking to herself. Then, the significance of the title is never adequately explained, but it is certainly no exhaustive meditation on an area of the psychic and colour spectrum as thorough as William Gass's beautiful essay, On Being Blue. Or maybe it's because Hilary Mantel gave us a much more substantial and satisfying exploration of the hocus-pocus thing in 2005's Beyond Black, perhaps because it paid more attention to social context than Kennedy chooses to do here. Finally, there is the "tragic revelation" at the end which is supposed to explain everything (and why do I feel the need to resort to that unpardonable mannerism of both writing style and speech pattern, the inverted commas or finger-flexing, when reviewing this book?), but which instead feels woefully tacked on and, as the youthful Martin Amis would have put it, "real dead babies". In short, the whole book is a series of unlikely occurrences and outlandish situations which, as they say, "fail to convince".
Granted, this pulling a rabbit out of a hat, narratively speaking, is meant to mimic a magic, or a confidence, trick. But there are few things more embarrassing to watch than a conjuror, or a conman, who doesn't pull it off. I didn't "believe" a word of it, and that is what makes this latest piece of sleight of hand, by the gifted illusionist AL Kennedy, her first serious misstep.
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