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Self-punishing woman shows how inferno can be a Paradise

HANNAH Luckraft drinks too much. She's been drinking too much since she was 17, and now she's pushing 40, with nothing much to show for it: "Because I was born with the absolute certainty that I would die before leaving 30.I arrived with 10 toes andblue eyes and death firmlyin mind. I passed the agewhen lives should be takenin hand, knowing that nosuch formalities would bere

Paradise

AL Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, ?21.64

HANNAH Luckraft drinks too much. She's been drinking too much since she was 17, and now she's pushing 40, with nothing much to show for it: "Because I was born with the absolute certainty that I would die before leaving 30.I arrived with 10 toes andblue eyes and death firmlyin mind. I passed the agewhen lives should be takenin hand, knowing that nosuch formalities would berequired. For me there would be no pension, no insurance, no prudent mortgage plan,no fretting over outragesin homes for the elderly, orthe ultimate loss of my health and faculties. I was carefree. And completely wrong, of course." There is also nochild, which in her "personal arithmetic" means "Hannah Luckraft = Nothing."

This woman - whose nomenclature manages to combine both the idea of grace and religious longing in its Christian first part with the trusting to blind fate (rather than faith) of someone all at sea in treacherous waters in its family second half - will drink anything she can get her hands on, including the ever reliable old standby from schooldays, cough mixtures, although she's not too keenon lager.

Her favourite is: "Bushmill's, County Antrim, 700 millilitres, 40 per cent. I mean, what else do you need to know? Not that, as an additional courtesy, you don't turn it in your hands and love the rounded corners and the dapper weight and the elegant cut of the label: the black with the white and the gold, all shaped around each other to mark out an arch: a long, slim doorway to somewhere else. And God bless the rectangular bottle, for it will not roll andharm itself."

She regularly has blackouts, waking up without a clue where she is, only to recollect later that - to take a random example - she spent a portion of the previous evening giving a vigorous blowjob to the unattractive total stranger she now finds herself chatting to across a hotel breakfast table.

Fans of the quick-fix quackery dignified under the term 'psychiatry', or the more drawn-out charlatanism which passes itself off as 'therapy', will search in vain for the reason Hannah behaves in this punishingly self-destructive way. Her childhood has been comfortable and stable, in fact a lot less traumatic than average.

She is blessed with loving, supportive and - most important of all, given her inclinations - forgiving parents.

Then there's her doctor brother, Simon, whose social and material success may be a standing reproach to Hannah (who is, ridiculously, "something in cardboard" - that is, until she gets the sack and starts working in a bar) and who, while he may have a smug shrew for a wife, and a baby on the way, still cares enough to get her into a treatment clinic in Canada, and foot the bill for it.

Plus there's Robert, her recently-acquired dentist boyfriend, whom she fell for because of his "drinker's smile". Yes, he's as big a dipsomaniac as she is, if not worse, but that doesn't stop her being crazy about him.

Doubtless any therapist worth his inflated 50-minute-hourly fee would dub this relationship 'co-dependent', but our Hannah isn't about to be taken in by any of their value-laden, socially-controlling, self-serving guff, and much satire is knocked out of her time in recovery: "This morning, we're sitting in a circle again - this means we're doing something to make us better, the kind of something that we get instead of treatment. Apparently it's a known fact that no one has ever recuperated from any unfortunate state without being slapped down into a grisly ring of pink Naugahyde armchairs and made to discuss their personal lives with a dozen emotional vampires listening."

Shrinks aren't any better, in Hannah's view, their evil bunk giving them a licence to behave much worse than priests and nuns ever did: "Tomorrow morning, I'm supposed to go off and have my skull cracked by some consultant, let him fumble around when there's nothing left for anyone to find. I've been professionally groped here for over a week: whatever thrill there was in it has gone. I'll tell him my dream and he'll grill me about masturbation or fetishes and then try to make me feel abnormal. This doesn't suit people like me - we need something gentle."

So why does she drink? If the standard answer is "To forget", and the further routine inquiry, "To forget what?", is always inevitably met by the comic reply, "I've forgotten," none of this is applicable to Hannah. For she remembers, in painful, self-lacerating detail. Indeed, it would be easy to conclude that her default setting is remorse, if it were not for the cutting, paradoxical humour with which it is leavened. Why does she drink? "I am delicate and the world is impossibly wrong, is unthinkable and I am not forewarned, forearmed, equipped. I cannot manage. If there was something useful I could do, I would - but there isn't. SoI drink."

Maybe it would be better to ask a geneticist why she is the way she is; or, failing that, a philosopher. For the metaphysical ironies and moral ambivalences in Kennedy's work are beyond most of her contemporaries, and are expressed, as they could only be, in a prose style that is virtuoso in its linguistic brilliance.

If this review contains excessive quotation, it is simply because this is very definitely a case where it is better to let the writing do the talking. Kennedy thrives on paradox: Paradise is, obviously, an inferno, but it is none the less a paradise for all that.

Reputedly a teetotaller, Kennedy has here performed a miracle of imaginative empathy. One would have to go back over 70 years, to Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, to find a woman writing so well about the interiority of the drinking life. As it is, this is a lyric work which bears comparison with Malcolm Lowry's rather more epic booze-hound's bible, Under the Volcano. It ends with a supremely well-rendered surreal train journey, which turns into a sort of pilgrimage, full of happy serendipities.

There are always only a handful of gifted and important writers in the world at any particular time, writers who really matter. Already an accomplished practitioner of the short story, with three previous highly-ambitious novels behind her, Paradise provides further evidence, if any more were needed, that AL Kennedy is among that select company.

Desmond Traynor is a Hennessy Literary Award winner, whose novel 'The Myth of Exile and Return' is published by Silenzio Press