If you read a lot of books, you have probably experienced people asking if you "liked" a particular novel, or whether you're "enjoying" reading it.
This is often difficult to answer. Some books are brilliant, challenging, memorable and bold, but the experience of reading them is quite unpleasant. AL Kennedy's latest is just such a book.
Set on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic, the novel itself creates a mild sensation of seasickness and claustrophobia. The language is rhythmic, repetitive and choppy, and instantly it gets in uncomfortably close with its just-too-intimate second person. It opens:
"But here this is, the book you're reading.
Your book – it's started now, it's touched and opened, held."
From here on, the reader is trapped in an oppressive little world.
Elizabeth Barber is boarding the ship with her perfectly pleasant boyfriend, Derek, when she is approached by Arthur, who asks her to pick a number. Her discomfort is out of all proportion to the scene; her reaction to this apparent stranger is visceral and intense. Here is a description of Arthur's elbow, when Elizabeth pats it through his shirt: "the unprotected hardness of bone – he is down to his bone – little bone, big bone, little – bared and taut and listening – there it is, listening – requiring." An elbow!
Nonetheless, it is shocking when Arthur treats himself to a large helping of buffet and turns to Elizabeth to hiss, "Will you fuck him tonight?" His numbers, it turns out, have all been a code; Elizabeth and Arthur were long ago lovers, who worked together as a touring double act, pretending, for a price, to contact the dead. The elaborate preparations that went into this dubious occupation provide a sinister framework for the relationship, her leaving of it, and her irresistible drawing back in.
It is interesting to find "many thanks" to the illusionist Derren Brown in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, but Arthur's amazing powers of detection often seem to owe more to Sherlock Holmes than to the repertoire of a dodgy medium. He studies death notices, visits cemeteries, and researches his victims before he wins their confidence and tells them all about their lives. It is easy to sympathise with those who are taken in, as we learn in those chapters that are beguilingly addressed to "you": "get enough people together and someone is bound to qualify for any competent opening description – and then they'll get to be the heroine, the hero of a story, not just an also-ran ... For anyone this would be special and would make them special and you realise they wouldn't like you to take it away." Of course the reader, "you", will understand.
At some point during the novel, you (and let's use the word advisedly) start to realise that something is going on. You are being addressed, so intimately, like an "enquirer" by a medium. The novel is appealing to your better self, reflecting back at you the "you" that you would like to see. It is also telling you lies. When Elizabeth meets Arthur on page 14, it tells you: "She has no theories about the man ... Saying what to a stranger would be rude ..." But he is not a stranger; this fiction is not true.
Incidentally, in this same conversation, Elizabeth tells Arthur that a person would notice if the book they were reading had its page numbers all wrong: two page sevens, for instance, or a completely random 361. What would be the purpose of such subliminal cues? Would most people notice them? Would you?
As the ship and the novel move inexorably towards their destinations, the code that Arthur and Elizabeth use in their act and their life together is revealed, bit by bit. "And we had the code – the simple one – our first code.
1 – Please listen
2 – Man
3 – Loss
4 – Child"
The clever – or maybe the susceptible – may guess the cause of Elizabeth's guilt, her restlessness, and the simultaneous attraction and repulsion she feels for Arthur, before they reach page 0, and then eventually 1.
Meanwhile, there are many things about this novel that are normal, and excellent. There's a great riff early on (straight from one of Kennedy's stand-up routines?) that begins with a kiss between a man and a woman, and ends with her braining him with a table lamp in Soft Furnishings. There is ample opportunity for comedy in the cruise liner setting, which "appears to be a large hothouse for the propagation of geriatrics". And there are some beautiful, very AL Kennedy lines about love, and cynicism and how to be in public.
These touches are enjoyable, but they are not what make the novel brilliant, challenging, memorable and bold. Like Arthur, this novel may seek out your wounds "and then close [itself] inside them like a bullet fragment left there to corrode". It's extremely brilliant, but you won't like it.
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