A L Kennedy: The Blue Book
It is always sad when a writer whom you have admired for virtually all of her work suddenly produces a book that is well below par. Alison Kennedy famously suffered from writer’s block a few years ago. I wonder if she had some sort of block when writing this book as, frankly, it really is just not good enough. When damning Sebastian Faulks‘ Human Traces, I compared it, very unfavourably, to Kennedy’s Paradise. If Faulks had a new book out now, I would probably have to do the reverse. Fortunately, he does not. The best thing about this book is the cover. It is (in the hardback UK edition at least), all blue with the title and a drawing of a palm of a hand in two circles all in gold (see below). It looks very nice. However, the text starts But here this is, the book you’re reading. Obviously. Indeed, obviously. So what is the point? I am afraid I do not know.
The story concerns a transatlantic crossing by sea from the UK to New York. Elizabeth (Beth) Barber is travelling with her boyfriend, Derek, and is vaguely hoping that he will propose to her on the journey. Derek is by profession an actuary and a fairly insipid character indeed. Unfortunately for Beth (perhaps) after the first day he spends the entire voyage seasick, staying in the cabin throwing up and abusing Beth when she appears. However, when they arrive on the ship, a young man plays a numbers game with Beth. At the evening meal, they decide to forgo the formal dinner and go to the buffet. The young man joins them and, while Derek is at the buffet, he asks Beth Will you fuck him?. We gradually learn that Beth knows him (though why this was not shown before is not clear). He is called Arthur Lockwood. While studying for a Ph.D., Beth had been sharing a flat with two other women (who she describes as boring – sadly this applies to virtually everyone in this book). They had a party and one of the guests was Arthur. We gradually learn that Arthur is a fake medium. (On her website, Kennedy apologises to all those of you who find it tautological to put the word fake in front of the word medium.) Beth and Arthur soon start a relationship, certainly professional but also romantic. They have a double act, where Arthur communes with the dead, for the gullible survivors. The two of them develop a numbers code so that Beth can give Arthur information about the victim. This code is explained in some detail in the book. The book describes both their activities as well as their early life.
It doesn’t work because virtually all of the characters are insipid and Kennedy clearly has no love for any of them. The key character, Arthur Lockwood, comes out as neither interesting nor sympathetic. For example, when he uses his technique on an unfortunate Rwandan refugee, who had been brutally raped and seen her husband killed, he has no qualms about calling up her late husband. However, this is not shown as some interesting evil behaviour but merely as a slightly slimy, uninteresting youthful misdeed. We do not care what happens with Beth and Derek nor whether she will stay with Derek or return to Arthur and, to be honest, Kennedy does not seem to care, either. Let us hope that she will return to form in her subsequent works.
First published 2011 by Jonathan Cape