Paradise, by AL Kennedy

The poetry and degradation of drink
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Hannah Luckcraft has "mastered the art of escaping from linear time". Her existence has come to resemble a wheel from which there is no stepping down, a repetitive process of disintegration and self-reconstitution. Her memory is oddly impressionistic, constantly throwing up nightmares and agonies of shame. This is because Hannah drinks, often to the point of blackout.

AL Kennedy's tough and painfully honest new novel begins at a point of re-entry as Hannah pieces herself together in the dining room of a cheap hotel near Heathrow. She may not know if she's coming or going, but her character quickly asserts itself. Cynical, critical, highly intelligent, she is at the same time a resilient survivor and a shaky inadequate.

One thing she is not is a victim. We are left in no doubt as to the loving nature of Hannah's upbringing and the basic stability of her middle-class background. No easy explanations are offered for her condition.

As her loyally supportive mother is quick to point out, she "used to be in cardboard but has since moved on". Canada and Budapest are dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, fogs in her brain. She conducts a doomed yet deeply loving romance with a fellow-alcoholic she meets at a wedding, each instantly recognising in the other "the drinkers' smile".

Perhaps the key to Hannah's addiction lies in her profoundly fearful nature. The terror of death pops up constantly like a grotesque jack-in-a-box. To escape such moments she lurches towards an affirmation of life it seems only the bottle can deliver. The intensity of this deliverance is described in a poetry of alcohol, a paean to liquid. A drink pours in slow-mo, "rising from the beaker to the jug in that continually renewing barley sugared twist: falling from the jug into the beaker like a muscle perpetually flexed and reflexed".

Ultimately, this jealous lover will demand a terrible price. The physical vulgarity and visceral discomfort of extreme drunkenness is described with all its degradations, along with the loss of hold on reality and the sheer loneliness. Sometimes, in the depths and heights, she glimpses God: "You suit each other, you and God," she tells herself, "you're both alone."

One of Hannah's saving graces is her humour, and she has a field day with the po-faced smugness and earnest concern of the sober. "Apparently," she says, trapped in group therapy, "no one has ever recuperated from any unfortunate state without being slapped down into a grisly ring of pink Naugahyde armchairs and made to discuss their personal lives with a dozen emotional vampires listening."

Because of her humour, and her honesty, we grow fond of Hannah, and as we leave her to another circuit of the wheel, we wish her well. A brave and uncompromising book that lingers in the mind, Paradise is AL Kennedy on top form.

The reviewer's novel 'Turn Again Home' is published by Virago