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.

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