The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy

DATE FINISHED: August 3rd, 2012 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  Beth and Derek are on a cruise – the youngest people aboard by far. Derek has planned to propose but is miserable and confined to his cabin with seasickness, instead. Beth wanders the decks and meets up with Arthur, a successful fraudulent psychic. It soon becomes clear their meetings are not the result of chance: Beth and Art have a secret history, but what is the truth of it (and them) and will their future be together or apart?

THOUGHTS:  I found this book quite infuriating. Large chunks of the narrative are told in the second person, which in itself was not a problem, but the laborious verbosity was:

Walking across foyers, into unfamiliar rooms, half-empty restaurants, waiting for the first steps of a first date, being in parties with too many people you don’t know – you can find it taxing. But social anxiety is commonplace, a kind of bond, because you’ve worked out, of course you’ve worked out, that your discomfort is often caused by the equal, if not more profound, unease of others. And you’ve wished you could just announce – we are scared here in this situation – whatever it is – all of us nervy and being tender-skinned precisely when we should not and although we are adults we feel we would like to run now or burst into tears – big children in stupid clothes who ought to be well-presented but aren’t and can’t think how they could be and this is, quite literally, painful and we should stop – but you never mentioned a word of this: you have only talked nonsense while voices pitched oddly and objects were dropped and the room became irritable or desperate for a drink, for several drinks, for anybody it could really talk to.

This is painful and it should stop. There are whole swathes of this tortured, pretentious, pseudo-philosophising nonsense obscuring what is actually a good story. After the first 50 pages I was on the cusp of giving up. I managed to keep going, though, and by page 100 I had discovered enough of Beth and Arthur to want to learn what had and would happen to them.

As the novel progresses, more and more of their story emerges. It is captivating, and is interrupted by fewer and fewer of the irritating second person interludes which do not add anything to the story. They do, however, slow down the exposition and make the reader keener than ever to get back to the real ‘action’. This is not an action-packed story; it is about how people get under one another’s skin, it’s about guilt, power within relationships and it’s about love. The tension is expertly built, and the ending leaves the reader hanging. I guessed the reason for Arthur and Beth’s separation but its revelation was still wrenching and I was surprised how much I could care about these characters who were kept at such a distance for so long. The ending will not satisfy some readers: it is not perfectly rounded and does not tie off one big loose end, but in this instance & context, this worked.

Ultimately I did enjoy this book, but I found its power and poignancy was diluted a little by the long-winded, overwrought, over-thought passages which simply irritated me. The remainder of the story was sufficient to overcome my irritation but it felt like hard work to wade through to that point and I think unfortunately the style will put off a lot of readers before they reach it.

FOLLOWING ON:  A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside has similarly potentially off-putting, meandering prose which rewards perseverance (and also has more moments of beauty).  Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel is another story which looks into the haunted life of a fraudulent psychic although with an entirely different outlook.


2 responses to “The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy

  1. nomadreader August 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    I’ve been avoiding reading this one since it made the Orange Prize shortlist, but I think I will finally dig in sometime before the end of the year. I’m anticipating a frustrating read, but I hope there’s enough I like in it to keep me going!

    • tanglecrafts August 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm

      I do hope you enjoy it! It’s definitely one I’ll be keeping to read again in the future (and hopefully I won’t be quite as irritated by the bits that irritated me second time around…!). I did really enjoy the main story between Art and Beth, so I hope you will get on with it, too. 🙂

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