Paradise by A L Kennedy

You'll need a stiff drink to get through this one...
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The Independent Culture

Towards the conclusion of AL Kennedy's non-fiction study On Bullfighting, she observes that the closing sequence of the corrida, culminating in the death of either matador or bull, resembles "a place of safety, a place where our needs are unfolded for us, where we can transcend ourselves, not alone". In her new novel, Paradise, an exploration of self-martyrdom, the narrator-cum-combatant, like the participants in the bullfight, is similarly at daily risk of dying. Hannah Luckraft, an alcoholic in her late thirties, is prone to drink-induced blackouts and casual sex, seemingly unable to articulate or inspire love. Despite the helpless devotion of her parents and "normal" younger brother she has always felt a freak, a member of the True Circus of monsters: "my natural family".

Virtually since childhood she has embarked on an odyssey of self-destruction, a love affair with inebriation that has been a mainstay through dead-end jobs (she is currently doing "something in cardboard") and unsatisfactory relationships. "I drink myself higher, it's all I need to do to ascend," she explains, charting her own via dolorosa through the 14 chapters of the novel: on and off the wagon, from Scotland to Budapest to a drying-out clinic in Canada and back again, the whole framed by an excoriating affair with Robert Gardener, a dysfunctional dentist who shares her drinker's smile.

Hannah seeks salvation, and her love for Robert - inseparable from her love of liquid - will either provide it or destroy her entirely. Sex between them is simultaneously intoxicating and infantile, as tender and desperate as the mute supplication of her family. When Robert disappears, Hannah's downward spiral turns into a nightmarish quest.

This is an unflinching book, elevated by the sublime quality of Kennedy's writing. Lacerating comedy is pitted against passages of sheer beauty: a surreal train journey with a grotesque cast of characters, presided over by a black-gloved, satanic barman eases into a scene of utter pathos, as Hannah, bereft and suffering from amnesia, fancies her lost lover transformed into a swan.

Kennedy is joining a long (mostly male) literary tradition of writing on alcoholism - from Jack London to Patrick Hamilton and James Kelman - and rarely has the experience been described so paradoxically, in such a repellent, enticing manner as here. For Hannah the bottle is a talisman, a "long slim door that leads somewhere else". Her voice is by turns rambling, histrionic, muffled and precise. Drunk, she can barely enunciate beyond a few muttered syllables; sober, she achieves a piercing, if reluctant clarity: "I can hear owls snatching mice in the park behind us. I can smell the whole of the day before yesterday."

Language is a comfort to be grabbed at in extremis, from the familiar cadences of the shipping forecast to the "unnecessary beauty" of random collective nouns. Complicit in her own probable extinction, Hannah nevertheless attains a ragged state of grace by the end of the novel. Kennedy has commented: "I don't hate the reader, but I do want to drag them into hell's mouth - it's good for them." With prose as rapturous as this, it's a place to be entered into willingly.