Tuesday, May 24, 2005


(by AL Kennedy, pub 2004, Jonathon Cape)

Disclaimer: I am not an alcoholic. Apart from one bad snatch of time, when I could see the usefulness of alcohol in erasing the gap between then and death, I have never even given serious contemplation to getting drunk. I only know one seriously alcoholic person, unless you count my mother who, when confronted with living on her own for the first time in her life, decided to have no alcohol in the house in order to avoid temptation. So, I am not well equipped to judge the authenticity of AL Kennedy's novel, which has an alcholic as its central character, but it seems plenty authentic to me.

The book starts brilliantly - not only are readers having to get acquianted with what's going on, but so too is the main character - someone we eventially learn is a 37 year old woman called Hannah, someone who has amassed a portfolio of complete loser-type jobs: "washing underwear in a theatre, stacking shelves, cleaning rental power tools, slotted together grids of doubtful purpose, folded free knitting and/or sewing patterns into women's magazines, sorted potatoes, telephoned telephone owners to tell them about their telephones, and spent one extremely long weekend in a hotel conference suite, asking people what they found most pleasing about bags of crisps". It takes Hannah 200 pages of the book before her "whole long explanation" of her life drops into her "eager and uninvited" and causing her to shudder her joints and concentration and jerk to a stop.

But at the beginning, we have an awakening:
And I apparently begin with being here: a boxy room that's too wide to be cosy, its dirty ceiling hung just low enough to press down a broad unmistakable haze of claustrophobia. To my right is an over-large clock of the kind favoured by playschools and homes for the elderly, the kind with bold, black numbers and cartoon thick hands that effectively shout what time it is whether you're curious or not. It shows 8:42 and counting. Above, is ageneralised sting of yellow light.
But I dont know which one - night or morning. Either way, from what I can already see, I would rather not be involved in all this too far beyond 8:43.
Memory seems to come back to her in episodes: she goes down to breakfast and encounters this wispy fellow she has never seen before, not according to her memory anyway. Then it hits her: she slept with him the night before and even has his credit card as a tangible reminder. Then there are recollections of her most recent job, as a carboard packaging salesperson, until the day she tried being kind to an old woman in a wheelchair but managed to let go of the wheelchair as it went over the kerb, spilling said old lady into the street. And then there are memories of Robert, and her family and so on.

It finally comes to her that she's in a hotel outside Heathrow, to where she has fled after escaping from a detox centre in Canada. From that point on, there is a fairly straight-forward narrative flow of events. Except that, by the end, you're left wondering if she ever actually left the detox centre. Brilliant: for a drunk, the idea is that they are never sure what's actually happening and what's a product of the drink. So - if Hannah can't be sure, nor can we.

One thing that does seem certain is the effect of her drinking on her family. Although she has no recollection, it becomes clear that time after time she has called on them to help her out. I don't know which is sadder: her brother can't do it any more, it is too much for him, but he has kept a key for her apartment:
Sorry for copying your key. I thought in the end I would need it. To come and find you at the end.
Don't make me.
Just typing that brought more tears to my eyes. But then there are her parents: they don't have the emotional strength to break free, they have to help out their daughter every time she goes off the deep end, because that's their role as parents - even though every time they see her, they have absolutely no idea what to expect of her, although being let down is the norm.

The other main character is Robert, another drinker - they connect through a shared knowledge of really tragic music, and there is a certain beauty to their relationship even if together they have double the trouble keeping off the bottle. Inexplicably, Robert then disappears - there is a suggestion to break free of his drinking, but we never really know.

But the most important aspect of this book is the simply wonderful writing. I've long heard about AL Kennedy, and how she's one of the more important up and coming writers (twice a Granta young Brit writer to watch). Here is apple juice being poured into a glass "like a muscle perpetually flexed and reflexed, the honey-colored heart of some irreversibly specialized animal" and then Bushmills "the rounded corners and the dapper weight and the elegant cut of the label ... a long, slim doorway to somewhere else".

There is no real answer to why Hannah drinks - she starts on cider while at school, so probably knows nothing different. It might be that Robert drinks because he was in the house when his father killed his mother, but Kennedy really leaves us to draw our own conclusions. That's the great thing about this book - there is no heavy-handed author decreeing that Hannah must get better because a happy ending is called for, but it is not impossible that she does indeed get better - if, indeed, much of the story is taking place while she's having the DT's in the detox centre.


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