A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy

An angry little man in Putney
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A couple of years ago a friend of Douglas Kennedy advised him not to mess with his genre. After producing a trio of barrelling white-collar-white-knuckle thrillers he had suddenly changed tack. The result, The Pursuit of Happiness, a tale of doomed love set in the claustrophobic years of the McCarthy witchhunts became a huge bestseller and marked Kennedy as a writer that had fallen upon that elusive combination: literary worth, stay-up-late readability and great sales. Arriving fast on its heels, Kennedy's follow-up suffers massively by comparison.

The first thing that disappoints is the book's limited scope. Admittedly, its heroine, Sally Goodchild, is plucky enough. The Boston Globe's woman in Cairo, she has an "Emily Dickinson-style New England face" and considerable nerve in the field. On assignment in Somalia she meets Tony Hobbs, a short, confident reporter for the British broadsheet The Chronicle.

They're drawn together into a heady relationship that seems two parts bravado, one part emotion. However, things soon take a more prosaic turn. Tony is appointed Foreign Editor back in the UK and Sally finds she's pregnant. What started out as a thrill ride in the African warzones soon transmutes into domesticity in a Putney terrace.

It's not long after a get-hitch-quick service that hostilities commence. Tony turns out to be a self-serving pillock with a predilection for booze. Who would have thought it? Frankly he seemed like an angry little man from the first page. But he's only one of Sally's problems. A horrendous pregnancy, and even worse birth, leads to intense post-natal depression. And so begins 300 pages of mental illness, abandonment and the ensuing child custody case.

In place of his signature plot twists, the author falls back on the old Brits-as-baddies routine. Snotty Chelsea paediatricians and incompetent Sloaney lawyers exacerbate Sally's personal hell. Kennedy's previous novels spawned Kafka-esque spooks such as Australian hicks, corporate killers and the evil envoys of McCarthyism. What's the worst that these chinless wonders can do: whip her with their Windsor knots? They're laughable.

So often things don't add up. Sally's an experienced foreign correspondent whose research skills fail to inform her of legal aid until she's four grand down. Can we believe that she can negotiate her way on to a Red Cross chopper but can't make it into the local Citizen's Advice Bureau?

Kennedy is a fantastic, feisty writer, but there simply isn't enough of a story here. If this is meant to be a culture-clash take on Kramer vs Kramer then readers need far more emotional collateral invested in Sally and Tony's relationship than is on offer. Even considering the allure of its protagonist, this is little more than a blip on an otherwise fine body of work. Perhaps it really is time to quit messing with his genre and get back to what he does best: keeping readers hooked long into the night.