23 May 2012

Review 37: The Blue Book by A. L. Kennedy

"Elizabeth Barber is crossing the Atlantic by liner with her perfectly adequate boyfriend, Derek, who might be planning to propose. In fleeing the UK - temporarily - Elizabeth may also be in flight from her past and the charismatic Arthur, once her partner in what she came to see as a series of crimes. Together they acted as fake mediums, perfecting the arcane skills practised by effective frauds. Elizabeth finally rejected what once seemed an intoxicating game, Arthur continued his search for the right way to do wrong. He now subsidises free closure for the traumatised and dispossessed by preying on the super-rich. The pair still meet occasionally, for weekends of sexual oblivion, but their affection lacerates as much as it consoles. She hadn't, though, expecting the other man on the boat. As her voyage progresses, Elizabeth's past is revealed, codes slowly form and break as communication deepens. It's time for her to discover who are the true deceivers and who are the truly deceived. What's more, is the book itself - a fiction which may not always be lying - deceiving the reader? Offering illusions and false trails, magical numbers and redemptive humour, this is a novel about what happens when we are misled and when we are true: an extraordinarily intricate and intimate journey into our minds and hearts undertaken by a writer of great gifts - a maker of wonders."

This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand it is clever and bold and intricately written, but on the other it is unpleasant to read; it doesn't uplift or inspire you but drags you down into the cruelty and intimacies of everyday human existence. I was fascinated by it, in the way you are with the somewhat repulsive creature you see in the aquarium, you can't stop looking at it even though it horrifies you. It is also difficult to review as things are revealed throughout the book that change the way you perceive the situation or characters and to spoil them would fundamentally spoil the book but it is difficult to consider your feelings about the book without revealing them.

First Line: "But here this is, the book you're reading."

Why I read it: It was one of the titles on the Orange Prize longlist that appealed, but not quite enough to buy it in hardback so I borrowed it from Solihull Library.

Who I would recommend it to: If you like to read heavy, post-modern literature that is challenging rather than enjoyable.
The blurb explains the concept of The Blue Book fairly comprehensively. Beth is on a cruise with her boyfriend, Derek, who she thinks might propose. Also aboard is Arthur, her former lover, who she worked with as fake mediums where they used intricate codes and signs to reveal peoples dead loved ones to them. Beth has tried to reject that lifestyle and tried to force herself to settle for Derek but it is clear that she is far more complicated and broken for a normal lifestyle and romance. The whole novel takes place on the boat, although it includes several lengthy flashbacks to Beth and/or Arthur in previous years. We are never under any illusion that this is the story of Beth and Arthur, not Beth and Derek.

Reading the novel is an experience in itself, it speaks to you directly as the reader, offering generalisations about your character that cannot help but be true, just as fake mediums and fortune tellers do. Events near the end of the novel also change the way we perceive what has happened, even just reading back the first page it had a totally new meaning. I was tempted to read the entire book again to appreciate it from the new angle. There are other little quirks as well, one to do with the page numbers which I only realised about half way through, which again would benefit from having the time to really study the book. The book itself ties into this, being entirely in blue and gold with blue edged pages. I did love way Kennedy ties everything into the reading experience and casts us almost as one of her characters.

The writing is quite suffocating at time and we feel the claustrophobia of being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean in bad weather with only tacky entertainment and unappetising buffets to inspire you. The language is also fairly graphic in terms of swearing and descriptions of sex, which adds to the tone of unappealing humanness that permeates the story. We have the story from Beth's point of view and in great streams of conciousness for large sections where she flits between thoughts and between what she's really thinking and what she's actually presenting to the world. It's a strong first person narrative, and Beth is fully realised as a narrator, I was on her side despite her manifold problems. Arthur I found rather harder to care for, not that the passive aggressive Derek was a preferred option, but he is an intriguing character and certainly not your rote romantic hero.

Despite its literary nature, it is still remarkably readable and I was fascinated by the characters and their messy lives and bad decisions. Some of the passages are startlingly beautiful and scenes from Beth and Arthur's work as mediums are complicated and wonderful. If you like to read fiction that challenges what fiction should be then this is for you. Whilst I didn't really enjoy this, I can't really fault it either. Personally I found the language a little too full on and the experience of reading it distasteful or perplexing at times, but it is an incredibly well conceived and crafted novel and I feel as though it was designed to be experienced like that. Kennedy wrote The Blue Book as a confronting and challenging novel, and that is what she has succeeded in creating.

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