Paragons of madness

So I Am Glad A L Kennedy Jonathan Cape £9.99
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So I Am Glad is the story of M Jennifer Wilson, a professional voice artist who finds it hard to connect with the world. The novel's terrifying-descent-into-madness aspect may fill potential readers with foreboding, but the writing is oddly colourful, and its ready supply of shadows does little to obscure this. Book by book, A L Kennedy seems to be defining her own particular brand of disturbed intensity. Here she adds a wonderful spin by catapulting Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the earliest exponents of what is now called science fiction, into his future and our present: the Nineties. Jennifer, holed up in a shared house in Glasgow, finds herself confronted by someone 375 years old, dead and strangely luminous.

With appropriate perversity the novel is bound together by the theme of dissociation. Jennifer's abusive parents have brought her up to conceal as much of her feelings as she can, causing her to become a sadist, and allowing her to throw off comments like: "Not surprised, just disappointed, I discover I am having sex again." If she finds sex desirable, this is largely because it means she doesn't have to speak. Meanwhile, alone in a beige, soundproof booth reading nightly news bulletins, she endures one apocalyptic vision after another, and concludes that while we may be mad to suffer the present government, "they are, most assuredly, true paragons of madness, every one." She claims at first that she is not calm, but unspontaneous. This is scarcely convincing for long.

Into her harsh but guarded gaze walks Savinien. She and her house-mates mistake him for an expected new tenant, and so they make him welcome. For Savinien, who is used to killing people in duels and writing poetry, 1994 seems at least as peculiar as it does to Jennifer. "I am out of my time, or out of my mind," he says, "which seems such a simple choice, but I cannot make it." He becomes dangerously addicted to happy pills and writes perplexing letters; Jennifer records further unsettling broadcasts. Then tentatively, and without especially grasping how, they begin to understand one another.

Throughout the novel, the theme of failed connections is emphasised by Jennifer's habit, as narrator, of jumping the reader in and out of the story. At a telling moment in the plot, for example, she writes, "Which is the perfect place to end this section because it looks so conclusive on the page. Except that we didn't finish there, we kept on, two unfictional people speaking in the emptiness of a small room." This kind of remark gives smaller pause to the reader than is perhaps intended. Jennifer's perpetual mental temperature-taking reveals sufficient feverishness that one resists being drawn in and infected by it. As another way of marking distance in the novel, many phatic noises are written into the dialogue, "hhrrrhf," "hnn," "haouh," and so on; but this seems self-conscious not on the narrator's, but on Kennedy's part. It is true that the novel's tone can sometimes seem overly portentous. On the whole, though, the pacing carries whatever freight is laid upon it.

For all its dark side, this is a book about love. Before meeting Savinien, Jennifer has attempted what she calls "conjunctions", but after, she feels so strongly that he is included in herself, that she writes, "there was more of me to be alone with now. It hurt." This love may be unusual, but within an atmosphere of prophetic light and shade, So I Am Glad is made heartening by an inrush of common, tremulous human feeling.