A L Kennedy: Serious Sweet
As I have mentioned before, hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, according to Pink Floyd via Thoreau. The two main characters of this novel could certainly be said to be hanging on in quiet desperation. They are Jon Sigurdsson who, despite his name is (more or less) English. He is fifty-nine and divorced. Both he and his ex, Valerie, have had several affairs. He is a fairly senior civil servant though his career is going nowhere. Though he generally likes his job, he finds many of his colleagues and the people he calls his customers (his bosses and Members of Parliament) to be tiresome and incompetent. He has a negative outlook on most things, including, for example, the Natural History Museum and Buckingham Palace. He describes himself as this absurd man who is ashamed of himself and says I’ve missed my life, I think.
Meg Williams is a forty-five year old former accountant who has gone bankrupt and now works for a home for rescued animals. She works in admin, not in accounting, though does occasionally help with figures. Like Jon, she is not happy with her life. As well as bankruptcy, she has faced distinctly unpleasant treatment for cervical cancer and continues to have regular check-ups, which she finds horrendous. She was also an alcoholic, spending much of the legacy left to her by her parents (but, fortunately, not the house they left) before more or less quitting cold turkey (though she had considered suicide). She has few friends, except for those she meets at Alcoholics Anonymous and has or more less abandoned AA, feeling uncomfortable with the whole atmosphere and the somewhat patronising tone of the group leader, Molly (It makes me angry. Who wouldn’t get angry with rubbish like that?) Like Jon, she is does not get on with her colleagues which, for all practical purposes, is just one woman, Laura, who tries to be friendly and helpful but whom Meg finds distinctly annoying. At least one of the causes for her alcoholism, she feels, is Margaret Thatcher. They share a first name, though Meg (who has used other variations of Margaret, her actual name) has always disliked her. For some reason, she could not explain, she attended Thatcher’s funeral and it was that that had her returning to her most recent bout of alcoholism, now over. Meg had spent years being with Meg and knew her to be a foul-tempered bitch who could put a curse on anything she thought of.
The novel is told over a twenty-four hour period, with Kennedy giving us the time of each chapter. Of course, there is a lot of back story as well. A lot seems to be packed into one day, particularly for Jon. In particular, there are three key events. The first is is his daughter, Rebecca (Becky). She has a boyfriend, Terry, whom Jon really does not like. Terry is always dominating the conversation and Jon feels that he will dominate Becky. They have had rows over this, not least because Becky feels that she can decide for herself whether she is being bullied. During the course of the day this book takes place, however, a crisis does occur with Becky and Terry, which requires Jon’s assistance.
The key aspect of Jon’s life and the one that helps make this book original is his letter-writing. He has set up a service whereby he will write twelve letters (though in practice he throws in a thirteenth for free) to discerning ladies with expressions of affection and respect delivered weekly. It is not entirely clear, even to him, why he is doing this. It is not for the money, which he gives to charity. In order to keep it at a distance, he starts in Ohio, where it is something of a success. He then moves nearer home, ending up advertising in the Times Literary Supplement. Not surprisingly, one of his customers is Meg. More surprisingly, his employers find out. While it is more or less accepted, as he does not meet the ladies, it is made clear to him that it has killed any promotion prospects he may have had. Inevitably, Meg manages to track him down and confront him.
The third key event of the day involves a seedy journalist called Milner. Milner is a sort of one-man Wikileaks. An election is coming up and the government is worried that Milner has some information that could be embarrassing and that he plans to leak. Jon vaguely knows Milner and he is dispatched to have lunch with him and try and find out what Milner knows. He ends up leaking to Milner some crucial and highly controversial information about the government which he has managed to find out independently of his job.
Above all, what makes this novel so interesting is the way it is told. We follow Jon and Meg in their daily life and see them in their various interactions. However, as we are given their conversations with others and the descriptions of their actions, we are also given, simultaneously, their thoughts about what they are doing, whom they are talking to and their life as it currently is. It is not a pretty picture. Both seem to be totally unhappy with their current (and past) life. Both seem to find it very difficult to cope with life – Jon with his boss, his job, his daughter, his ex-wife, Milner, his colleagues, Meg with Laura and her life in general. On more than one occasion both seem headed for some sort of breakdown. Both, but Meg in particular, swear profusely when talking to themselves, something they do not do when talking to others (Jon makes the point that he does not generally swear).
This is another first-class novel from Kennedy. She really manages to get under the skin of two relatively normal people but two people who really struggle with life and just find it very difficult to relate to others and to their everyday life. This could have been very boring in the hands of a lesser writer but Kennedy manages it superbly as we wonder what is going to happen to Meg and Jon separately (and, later, together) and whether they will actually have a breakdown, carry on or sort themselves out. What will be the consequences of Jon’s letter-writing and his leak? Or is hanging on in quiet desperation the only English way?
First published 2016 by Jonathan Cape