A.L. Kennedy is a very remarkable writer. And her new novel — the first since Day won the Costa prize in 2007 — is a remarkable book. What is really extraordinary about it is that at one level it is a pretty trite love story with dark secrets to be revealed and lots of reflection on truth and lies and how the past lingers on and affects the present — bog-standard stuff. The basic set-up is somewhat improbable, and (as always with Kennedy) somewhat elliptical, even evasive.
Elizabeth, the protagonist, is crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship with her boyfriend who may or may not be planning to marry her. Also on the ship, by design it transpires, is her ex-lover who is an internationally famous medium and with whom she worked in the past on what she has come to see as a massive con act. Luckily for her, Derek, the worthy present partner, is hideously sea-sick, allowing her to re-involve herself with Arthur and her own memories.
The whole thing feels fairly implausible to me and it was impossible to feel much engagement with Elizabeth or much interest in either of her two men. Although Kennedy’s observations are acute, and Elizabeth’s reflections often instantly recognisable and clever this does not somehow add up to ‘character’ in the sense that one anticipates in a novel. This is partly because the narrative is handled in two voices — a third- person authorial voice and Elizabeth’s first person ‘inside her own head’ voice — but they are not easily distinguished, and have a very similar perspective so that the extra effort of working out how to read the novel is not instantly rewarded by fuller understanding of the central character. This can feel frustrating and unsatisfying.
Never mind any of that. Reading The Blue Book is an extraordinary, rich and faintly unnerving experience. Kennedy pushes language around on the page, forcing it into places that it should not really be able to go, writing at the extreme edge of narrative prose. Over and over again the writing tips towards poetry, teeters on the verge of the collapse of plot and then regains its balance and pushes on with the story. This is not an accident — Kennedy obviously knows exactly what she is doing, and does it with enormous authority. But the effect is strange. The text even looks strange — she needs three different fonts and an immensely dense use of punctuation to make it work. The prose is frequently fragmented, into lines like poetry or broken paragraphs and other visual tricks.
I think many people will find this annoying. Is it all too clever-clever and not worth the effort of meeting the very high demands Kennedy makes of her reader?
But I found it one of the most exciting things to read that I have encountered for ages. There was (just) enough emotional material to keep that aspect of me engaged. Kennedy is wise and perceptive about how it is to be human and renders her insights with a delicacy and dark wit that is frequently impressive. But that is secondary really to the things she is doing with language. I was constantly on edge — uncertain whether she was going to be able to pull it off, frustrated sometimes, irritated sometimes and over and over again both stunned and thrilled by her accomplishment.