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The Blue Book by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2011, 375 p.

Sumptuously produced with embossed boards, gold leafing, patterned endpapers and page edges in a blue so deep it’s almost purple this is a consciously literary endeavour. It makes frequent reference to your book, the book you are reading, and also has unconventional upper pagination (the numbers at the bottom of the page are in the normal sequence.) It also explicitly mentions the fact that it has three pages numbered 7 – with a page 18 well out of sequence. In addition The Blue Book has three pages numbered 9, two 8s,10s and 27s as well as 0s and 1s towards the end; not forgetting a 666, a 676, a 678, a 798, an 888, a 919 and a 934 in a book with only 375 pages. (There may be some of these I have missed.) Numbers are an important means of communication for the two main characters and Kennedy has toyed with this notion and with us. Quite how necessary it is to do so is another matter. A further notable feature was the repetition of phrases, “Because he was young,” “A man standing in a doorway,” etc. The narration is not straightforward, sometimes describing aspects of a man’s life in detached third person, at others the internal thoughts of Elisabeth Barber as well as the ongoing narrative. There is also a rather high count of a certain expletive.

One of the scenes tells us of a boy being told about girls by his father. Girls, he says, will not be gorgeous like Dusty Springfield, whom the boy rather likes. Or if they are this will not be good news. Which seems like sound advice.

The meat of the novel is compressed into the time scale of a cruise across the Atlantic to New York but there are various flashbacks to earlier incidents in the two main characters’ lives. Elisabeth is taking the trip with her boyfriend Derek who is on the brink of proposing. In the queue to embark they encounter a man who engages them in conversation. This man’s question to Elisabeth later that day when Derek is absent seems shocking but it turns out Elisabeth used to be his partner, not only in life but also on stage in a show which was basically a con where he claimed to have messages from the dead to their loved ones in the audience. The disintegration of Elisabeth’s relationship with Derek and her renewal of that with Arthur Lockwood – implicit from that encounter in the queue – drives the novel.

A flaw for me though was the fact that The Blue Book depends for its emotional impact largely on the late revelation of a crucial piece of information up till then withheld. To be fair it is withheld from one of our duo of characters but it felt too much like a deus ex machina.

The Blue Book is not one to be read lightly, nor with lack of attention.

What Becomes by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2009, 218p

 What Becomes cover

The back cover blurb of What Becomes makes explicit reference to the old Jimmy Ruffin (among many other performers) hit What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and this collection of short stories does mainly examine fractured or doomed relationships within or outwith marriage. The emblematic story title here would be Whole Family With Young Children Devastated though in the story concerned it actually refers to a notice about a lost pet displayed on local lamp-posts. Two stories are exceptions. Another concerns the careful reconstruction of a new life and relationship after the woman’€™s husband has died, while As God Made Us is about the camaraderie of a group of ex-soldier amputees and the prejudice they still face.

Kennedy’€™s style in her short stories is oblique. Very little is stated outright either by her narrators or by the characters but it is all exquisitely, carefully written. The overall sense is of people clinging on, desperate to make connections.

There was one peculiar phrase where a character was described as, “€œconstructing these laborious smiles which I think were designed to imply he was a dandy youngster and blade about town,”€ – of which I can only make sense by assuming that similes was the intended word. But if it’s not in fact a typo it’€™s brilliant.

Day by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2008

Day follows the fortunes of Alfred Day, a former tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War 2. This might lead you to believe he will die in the novel’s denouement – rear gunners were notably short lived, being the first target a night fighter might hit in an attack run and unsuitably positioned to exit a doomed Lanc easily should the worst happen – but it is quickly revealed that after the war he returns to Germany to take a part in a film set in a POW camp. The book roams back and forth through Day’s wartime life, the filming and his relationships with the bomber’s crew, his parents, and the married woman he takes up with.

The prose shifts in various ways. The narrative is not linear, the point of view changes, as do tenses and even the person in which the novel is related. Passages related by “you” – ie in the second person rather than the more familiar first person, I, or third person, s/he, are notoriously difficult to bring off – but Kennedy slides into them and out again with facility.

The post war scenes are the least engaging. They seem to be present to allow Day to recollect his wartime experiences from some distance though they do reveal part of his character and the ugly compromises made by the war’s winners as their old allies turned into adversaries and vice versa.

The front cover tells us Day won the Costa Book of the Year 2007. While the fractured nature of the narrative may render it difficult to read for some, the gradual unravelling of the story does build to its conclusion; where there are no unsignalled authorial surprises waiting for us.

Everything You Need by A L Kennedy.

Jonathan Cape, 1999

This blog is supposed to be about writing, fiction, football and whatever; yet so far I’ve posted nothing about writing. Here’s the corrective. I don’t know whether I ought to or not but I intend to post reviews of the books I have read recently. This is the first.

Everything You Need
by A L Kennedy

Everything You Need cover

Kennedy comes laden with praise and plaudits but I’ve always found it difficult to find a way into her work. There can be an opacity about her prose that obscures understanding (or is that just me?) Everything You Need has this opacity at the start but does become more transparent once the story gets into its stride.
It’s mainly set in Wales on an island retreat where a group of writers support one another in their literary efforts. As such it breaks one of the little spoken rules of writing – don’t write about writers – but, of course, as one of the characters says near the end, there are no rules. There are also occasional forays to a London publisher’s or to literary parties.
A newcomer, Mary, brought up elsewhere by two uncles – one of whom isn’t – comes under the tutelage of Nathan, an established male writer whose connection with her we know to be closer than she ever suspects. The novel teases out the development of their association over several years as they each successfully conclude a novel – Mary’s first and Nathan’s long awaited “serious” one. We are given extracts of Nathan’s novel – but not Mary’s – at various junctures. This delineates his past and present, and will finally reveal his secret to Mary (but only after Everything You Need ends.)
In terms of characterisation the homosexual relationship between the two “uncles” is handled matter-of-factly and without tripping into sentimentality later on where it might have, though strangely – the book is set in the 1990s – the treatment of Mary’s relationship with her boyfriend Johnno felt a little old-fashioned. There was a touch of the 1950s about it. The novel also had echoes of The Wasp Factory – even before the obvious incident late in the book where this comparison is most apt.
I must say the picture it portrays of literary London is not flattering. (Perhaps Kennedy wishes not to be invited to any more literary dos.)
Since it is over 500 pages long (though the type face is large) and my reading time is short, I had put off reading this novel for years. However, it does not feel like time misspent. The characters were well drawn and mostly engaging, though Nathan’s dithering was a touch annoying. But without that there would have been neither plot nor tension so I’ll have to forgive Kennedy there.
Everything You Need contains nothing particularly startling or revelatory about the human condition beyond displaying how difficult communication can be between people – especially if they care for each other – but there are worse ways to while your hours away.

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