Suicide and study in a community of crackpots

Everything You Need by A L Kennedy Cape pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
I have a suspicion, or maybe a rule, that fiction can cover anything except itself; that writers should never write about writers. I always feel it shows a lack of imagination, a narrowness of vision, that the author is meeting him or herself coming back. And apart from anything else, the day-to-day life of the average author makes pretty mundane reading.

A L Kennedy's new novel, Everything You Need, turns out to be the exception to this rule, although you may not think it at first. Nathan Staples is a writer living in a small artistic community on an island off the Welsh coast. He also happens to be a complete crackpot, as is everyone else in the community. The inhabitants have an odd, mystic rule that "anyone on Foal Island was free to put him- or herself in the way of dying at any time. ... Technicolor, widescreen contact with the Beyond would infallibly compose itself into clear, metaphysical sense. And seven tries for eternity are supposed to work the fucking charm." In chapter one, Nathan is racked with grief and want, gazing at a "fully cocked and loaded photograph" of the wife and daughter he hasn't seen for 15 years. In chapter three, he's hanging himself.

So far, so dubious. Then introduced is the 19-year-old Mary Lamb, a nascent writer who has been awarded a residency on the island for seven years to study under the tutelage of Nathan. She, unbeknown to her, is the child in the photograph: Nathan's estranged daughter.

What follows is the uncovering, the rediscovery of attachment and love. Nathan vacillates and deliberates and procrastinates over telling her the truth, while unfurling in this regained affection like a plant in sunlight; Mary, abandoned by her mother and brought up by her uncles to believe that her father is dead, develops a partiality, a fondness for Nathan which is both fused and confused with the act of beginning to write. It is a fascinating and at times unsettling dissection of a strangely imbalanced relationship: Nathan's memories of Mary as a toddler are interspersed with Mary's feelings for Nathan tipping dangerously close to desire.

The novel's genius lies in Kennedy's shiveringly exact skill at lining up the interior worlds which run concurrently with people's exterior ones. Scenes of action or dialogue are interspersed with italicised, internalised thoughts. As well as amplifying her characters' isolation, this device reveals the perverse, strange things people think when alone: when Nathan cannot stop thinking about his ex-wife, Maura, he runs through a list of things which could be worse - "rubbing an opened wound with living wasps ... being sodomised by an ill-tempered man using a plaster model of my own grandmother's arm. That would be noticeably worse." It also charts the nonsense people talk to themselves in idle moments: "Migraine - funny word. And it is also the name of a vineyard down somewhere in France ... Fucking stupid name for a vineyard - someone should have told them. Still, in French, it might not mean the same. Nobody gives a fuck in any case. Except the French." In a novel where the subject matter is concentric circles of secrecy, this is where the drama is really being played out: in the initial, stilted meetings between Mary and Nathan, conversations are interspersed with asides like "he knows I'm looking at him and doesn't like it - doesn't like it at all. Shame that I'm not going to stop, then." Nathan in turn is thinking "She's got the space for a father now. I'll tell her. I will tell her."

There are holes in this 567-page narrative. You spend the entire first half of the novel wondering - dreading - what terrible act Nathan must have committed to force Maura to cut him off, only to find out that it's just workaholism: "You're not the way you should be with [Mary] ... she isn't in one of your plots." Maura herself is a rather shadowy character, never fleshed out, never clarified beyond Nathan's dreamy visions. It's never entirely clear why she would use Mary's healthy development as a reason for leaving Nathan, only to then dump the child on her brother. The almost-but-not-quite satirical glimpses of the London publishing world as a seething pit of Groucho Club corruption and alcoholism might have been refined or edited down, as might the rather tangential story of a child's abduction and murder.

But Kennedy's skill as a writer continues to be astonishing. Every metaphor, every image hits like a painfully well-aimed arrow. There aren't many writers who, in one book, can include close descriptions of a rectal enema, a labial-piercing infection, what it's like nearly to die from hanging, or to kill a gull, or resuscitate a child, or write a pre-death goodbye letter entirely without sentiment.

Everything You Need is a serious novel with a serious intent: to examine where writing comes from. It is the work of an intelligent woman observing her craft, asking what is the source of the creative urge and can it be taught and are there such things as rules? She seems to believe that writing is an act of purgation and redemption. The final image we are left with is Mary picking up Nathan's novel manuscript which will tell her where she came from and where she can go now.

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