sevenstories’ #CBR4 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.
It is 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 can’t say I enjoyed this, I was impressed by it and I can’t really fault it either. Personally I found the experience of reading it distasteful and 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.
The full review is on my blog.
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.