Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy

Darkly funny and cleverly crafted, Scottish author A.L. Kennedy's The Blue Book offers sharp and tender insights into human nature. I read passages aloud to anyone who would listen. By the end, my copy fluttered with sticky notes marking favourite parts.

When I was about a third of the way into the book, I read a unfavourable review of it in The Globe and Mail. Kathleen Byrne called it "a mess of fractured narrative" that takes "the patience of Job" to appreciate. Woah! I know that taste is subjective, but this kind of review is what I'd expect on someone's blog, not from a professional reviewer. Anyway, I wouldn't say that I have much patience as a reader. If a book doesn't grab me, I'll pick up something else, but The Blue Book hooked me from the start. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize earlier this year, so I'm not the only one who loved it.

My heart went out to Beth, one of the central protagonists, because in spite of her lively intelligence she has difficulty negotiating social interactions. With conflicted feelings about an upcoming encounter, for example, Beth "decides she should stand and worry that she isn't properly dressed. This will pass the time."

Beth has reason to suspect that Derek will ask her to marry him while they are on holiday on an Atlantic ocean liner. She worries about what that will mean for the future, "how much you will have to do: memorising mutual preferences, habits, frustrations, ticks -- and you'll discuss -- you will have to discuss -- God knows -- futures and kittens, or dogs, or stealing a baby from outside a shop -- you probably won't have the time to make one of your own -- and, if not that, then certainly there will be carpets and curtains to consider and accommodations, gardens, flats, renting, mortgages, life insurance, drawing up your wills -- and what if he dies before you? -- then you'll be upset -- and planning how many you'll have at the wedding breakfast -- although you might want something quick, a quiet affair with the cabby who drove you in as a handy witness -- I mean, why not? -- it could happen -- it genuinely, horrifyingly might -- when, Jesus Christ, you don't want to get married, not you -- marriage, that's an institution -- since when did you want to spend life in an institution? -- this whole thing is unpicking you, reworking you into someone else -- which means he will, in actuality, he'd be marrying someone else and how could you possibly cope with that? -- the jealousy alone would kill you..."

There's another person on the boat who has known Beth for a long time. The two of them used to prey on people's gullibility, supposedly transmitting messages from the dead to their grieving loved ones. Arthur was always better at this game than Beth was.

Arthur's trick is to "love his enquirers into openness, trust. When he actively considers their frailty, it becomes irrelevant if he dislikes them, loathes them -- because love is his only appropriate response. He loves them and they know it and that means they will let him burrow in."

"He can read anyone. He is a burning man and reads by his own light."

"get enough people together and someone is bound to qualify for any competent opening description [...] maybe had a chest condition, bad legs -- or someone they knew had bad legs -- or forget it and slide on, keep talking -- they had blond hair, wanted blond hair, had a friend with blond hair, had hair -- they worked in an office..."

Beth and Arthur have unfinished emotional business and, despite their acute awareness of what makes other people tick, neither of them are good at communicating their own feelings. Actually, it's more a matter of them being hyperaware -- requiring extra tact and precision with each other. As the events of their shared history are unveiled, my fascination with these characters grew. I also found myself thinking about spiritual mediums from a new point of view.

Readalikes: Lighthousekeeping (Jeanette Winterson); There but for the (Ali Smith).

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