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A L Kennedy: Paradise

Every time I read a novel by Kennedy, I am struck by what a brilliant writer she is and how stunningly amazing it is that she has never even been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (though she has been a judge) and seems not to have won any significant literary prize for any of her works. The work to hand is not one of her greatest but it is far superior to many of the Booker shortlistees and some of the winners. Let’s not forget that the massively overrated John Banville won it the year this novel was published. But then that is why this site exists – because the Establishment fails to recognise talent and rewards pretension and those in the club, sorry, the Club.

In my rant against Sebastian FaulksHuman Traces – a well-meaning and well-written novel – I make the comparison with this novel, which I happened to have read just prior to reading the Faulks and it is stunningly clear to me that Kennedy is so much the superior writer that it is almost embarrassing. The story is of one Hannah Luckraft, a forty-something Scottish woman who is an alcoholic. This is not exactly an original idea for a novel (see, for example, this article). There are various ways of dealing with the theme. There is the descent into hell approach, the cutesey, humorous approach (it’s fun being an alcoholic!), the it-messed-up-my-life-but-I-will-pull-through approach, the alcoholics-are-just-like-other-people approach and so on. Kennedy takes the approach that her heroine is an alcoholic and is just going to go on with her life, every so often falling into that big, black pit but somehow stumbling out to get on with life.

She starts by waking up in a hotel room, wondering where she is, who she is (she has someone else’s credit card and a wad of money whose source she is unsure of). For the rest of the novel we follow her adventures, often with Robert. Robert is a fellow drunk, married but separated (though we/she don’t learn that till later) and a dentist. The pair fumble with sex, fumble with alcoholism and, indeed, fumble with their lives. Hannah has a job selling cardboard but is laid off. Robert is not, by all accounts, a very successful dentist. Both (separately) flee to Canada for a cure, where Kennedy makes her only slip, drifting into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest mode. But what makes this novel so good is that, completely unlike Faulks (poor Faulks! – he is not the only one, by far, to be guilty of this), Kennedy superbly gets under the skin of both Hannah and Robert and, instead of telling a straightforward narrative of a drunk, she gets into the soul of her character, to the extent that we can really feel what Hannah is feeling and know what it is like to be a drunk (not necessarily as bad as it is painted, when you are there, but not something you would recommend to your friends).

Of course, as the title implies, Hannah is looking for something, something away from her parents, away from a boring job and boring evenings in the pub, a something which may well involve booze and Robert but will still be a happy paradise for her. Kennedy smartly gives no easy answers (though she does drop hints) but it doesn’t really matter because she has left us with a very well written novel, that makes you wonder what the Booker judges were up to when they didn’t give her the prize. Maybe it was the booze.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape