The Blue Book (2011) by A.L. Kennedy
The Blue Book is a complex, fractured story. It centres on middle-aged Beth, who is taking a cruise with her boyfriend, Derek, who may be about to propose. But it also jumps into Beth's past, when she was the lover and professional partner of Arthur, a fake medium, and in turn visits scenes from Arthur's past - and their history together. Some chapters seem entirely random and don't take on real significance until much later. The book is written mainly in the third person, but it occasionally inhabits Beth's head, so we see her thoughts in close-up, first-hand, stream-of-consciousness detail. It also appears to address the reader (or is it one of the characters?) directly, and there are playful details such as wrongly numbered pages - a little reference to the numerical code Beth and Arthur use to communicate with one another.
I'll address the main positive of this book first: the writing is simply sublime. As soon as I began it, I was finding lines I wanted to quote or write down on almost every page. Kennedy's use of language is brilliant, original and sometimes very offbeat (she frequently merges words together to create new meanings), but comes off as effective and innovative rather than deliberately 'quirky'. The plot, however, is more of a problem. The main set-up of 'love triangle on a boat' is comical, probably more so because this is a literary novel, yet the premise - at first glance - sounds like either pure trash or pure farce. To draw something intriguing and sometimes frightening out of this is no mean feat, to be sure, but there's no denying it's restrictive. Perhaps for this very reason, the narrative is choppy, and while I found the chapters detailing Beth and Arthur's work together interesting, there were others - scenes from the protagonists' childhoods, Arthur's solo work with wealthy customers - that bored me.
I loved how the reader is able to see Beth's thoughts in their purest form, and I liked her, but I often found the way the characters behaved around one another frustrating in the extreme. Every tiny thing seems to be fraught with difficulties and hugely overcomplicated - I wanted to reach into the book and knock some sense into them. I couldn't really figure Arthur out, either. I felt like Kennedy was hinting that he had some sort of mental health issues throughout the book, but never quite got at what these were. At points, he appears to be completely detached from reality and some of his monologues read as though he has severe learning difficulties. Kennedy is clearly an accomplished writer, so there's obviously some point to this, but - I'll be honest - I didn't understand what it was and I struggled to make sense of him as a character. His eccentricity seemed to jar alongside the intensely sexual nature of his relationship with Beth.
I skimmed through a number of reviews of this book after finishing it, and this passage from Katy Guest's review in The Independent particularly stood out to me: 'Some books are brilliant, challenging, memorable and bold, but the experience of reading them is quite unpleasant. A.L. Kennedy's latest is just such a book.' I wouldn't quite say The Blue Book was an unpleasant read, exactly, but I certainly found it impressive more than enjoyable. I can imagine many readers tiring of Beth and Arthur's hand-wringing over their relationship long before the final twist that makes sense of their (or, at least, Beth's) debilitating angst. The late deployment of this twist, and the suffocating sense of past trauma and emotional damage permeating the whole book, reminded me a lot of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and my feelings about both of these critically lauded books are similar - while beautifully written, they lack the power to truly engage or convince. I'd read more by Kennedy, but I'd need to feel there would be more to hold my attention than just the language.