by A.L. Kennedy.
Cape, 344 pp., £14.99, September 2004, 0 224 06258 1
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Her name is Hannah Luckraft, and she is an alcoholic. Not that the narrator of A.L. Kennedy’s latest novel would ever tell you that herself. This isn’t because she’s in denial about her drinking – much of the time she finds it quite hard to think or talk about anything else – or the damage it causes, but because she isn’t in the habit of stating things so baldly. Paradise, like Kennedy’s previous fiction, is wary of blunt declarations of fact. Her stories tend to begin not merely in medias res, but in the middle of a character’s train of thought, too. ‘Rockaway and the Draw’, for example, the first story in the 1997 collection Original Bliss, begins: ‘She was thinking, only thinking. Because it felt good. You can make someone deaf with a pencil. Just put it in their ear and shove.’

Perhaps the logical progression from beginning stories in this way, so that the reader is temporarily lost inside a character’s head, learning their dark thoughts before anything else about them, is to begin a story with the narrator in the same situation as the reader. Paradise opens with Hannah (as we later learn to call her) coming round from a blackout in (what she and we gradually realise is) a hotel dining-room: ‘How it happens is a long story, always. 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.’ She finds herself in the company of ‘a straggly, gingery man’ and his children, who seem to be inexplicably upset by Hannah, or by her not knowing them. You may begin to worry that they are her family, unrecognised and, as strangers, faintly repellent. As it turns out, you’d be wrong, which is a relief of sorts, and a lesson in not jumping to conclusions.

She does have a family, however: a mother, father and brother, which is a surprisingly conventional configuration for Kennedy. And there are no dark secrets: in So I Am Glad (1995), it transpires that the narrator’s parents used to make her watch them having sex, which probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why she is emotionally withdrawn and has dangerously sadistic urges. The only source of dysfunction and shame for the Luckrafts is Hannah’s drinking. Paying an impromptu visit to her parents after a long absence, she finds her mother with a new neighbour, who asks Hannah polite and awkward questions about her life:

But my mother returns to save me with ‘She used to be in cardboard but now she has moved on.’

And if ‘She used to be in cardboard’ is the kind of absurdity that she would only produce under pressure, then ‘but now she has moved on’ is layered with a savage faith and tenderness and is none of Mrs Anderson’s business.

The relationship at the heart of Paradise, the love story that gives the novel what shape it has (drink has a tendency to make things lose their shape), is between Hannah and Robert, an alcoholic dentist. Alcoholism and dentistry have coincided, more grotesquely, in Kennedy’s fiction before: a desperate character in Everything You Need (1999), a publisher called Jack Grace, visits a sadist in Soho to be administered alcohol enemas; by way of payment, the sadist gets to extract one of Jack’s teeth while he is unconscious. There’s nothing so ostensibly grisly in Paradise: Hannah and Robert get drunk, have sex (in his car, in his dentist’s chair), fall in love, take it in turns to go to Canada for rehab, stop drinking, start drinking again, take it in turns to leave each other.

The context (booze), and the particular contours of the relationship (the novel’s plot, such as it is), may be new, but the underlying problem that Kennedy is exploring here is familiar from her earlier work: how do two people negotiate between their need to be loved and their fear of jeopardising the possibility of love by being misunderstood – or, worse, fully known – by one another. In the novella ‘Original Bliss’, the principals are an insomniac housewife whose husband periodically beats her up and a bestselling pop psychologist who’s addicted to pornography: having little in common at first but loneliness, they falter their way towards intimacy. It’s a brutally effective and affecting piece of storytelling.

In Everything You Need, Nathan Staples, a cantankerous middle-aged novelist, arranges for his estranged daughter, Mary Lamb, to win a scholarship to the isolated writers’ community where he lives, on a small island off the Welsh coast. Mary, believing her father to be dead, has no inkling who Nathan is. Wanting the approval and affection of her teacher, she is baffled by his alternately affectionate and rebarbative behaviour. The longer their friendship develops on the terms understood by Mary, and the more they come to trust each other, the harder it gets for Nathan to tell her the truth. All their trust and understanding is based on a lie. At nearly six hundred pages, the novel is in many ways too long, but you can’t help but admire Kennedy’s skill in teasing out the nuances of the relationship over such a distance. Hannah Luckraft, too, is in a double bind. She can find satisfaction only when drunk, and her relationship with Robert is founded in shared drunkenness. Yet the consequences of her drinking – recriminatory hangovers, neglect of what other people perceive to be her responsibilities, unemployment, petty theft, disease – intervene between Hannah and happiness.

Nathan has a theory that writing – at least, writing fiction – is the opposite of love: people with real relationships don’t need to invent imaginary ones. This is too neat to be true, and doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the porousness of the boundaries between fiction and life. The honesty that Kennedy’s characters display towards her readers, and the sympathy that she persuades her readers to extend towards her characters, provide a model for the kind of relationship her characters strive to have with one another. Yet, as Nathan knows, these things are easier when at least one of the parties doesn’t exist. There is an analogue for the reader/character relationship in the group therapy sessions at the rehab clinic in British Columbia:

None of us actually knows him, of course, we’ve only heard him recite his life, just as he’s heard us recite ours. Obviously, we expect everyone to be lying as they reminisce – whether a nurse is taking notes or not – but lies are never less than revealing and Eddie’s mark him out to be a total lunatic. So he’s a stranger, but an intimate one, the way we all are to each other.

To escape the clinic, Hannah cons a man with Korsakoff’s syndrome out of several hundred dollars, justifying the act to herself with the thought that not only does he not need the money, but he won’t even realise it’s gone in the morning. The stories he tells about himself aren’t lies, exactly, since he can’t remember the truth that they’re standing in for. Hannah herself, and the novel, lose the plot towards the end, as her nightmares bleed into her reality and it becomes increasingly unclear what’s going on. ‘I can remember both endings,’ she says near the beginning of the book, recalling an inconsequential exchange with a man in a record shop. The novel itself has two endings – one hellish, the other paradisal (paradise, for Hannah, consisting of a hotel room with Robert and whisky) – but neither is more real than the other, and both are transitory: her life has disintegrated (finally, entirely) into alcoholic confabulation.

The miseries of Kennedy’s fiction could make it unbearable, but it’s redeemed not only by a surprising sense of humour, which encompasses a well-developed sense of the ridiculous, but also by a sense of perspective. In Everything You Need, a small boy from the fishing village on the mainland is abducted and killed: Nathan’s daughter may not know he is her father, but at least she’s alive, and with him. Jack Grace, having lost his sense of perspective entirely, goes for his last, fatal enema in response to one of his writers not winning a literary award. In Paradise, Hannah, glaring at the man in the seat behind her on the plane to Canada, hoping to stop him kicking her, catches a glimpse of his newspaper:

There are military pictures, which you didn’t expect.

‘What . . .’

He’s laughing, smirking, undistracted and wiping his hands on his sleeves – some sort of oozing there – and then there’s a jolt through the airframe and

You see the headlines again.

‘Ah, because, when did this . . .’

Asking your neighbour now – man behind hates you and is no use – so you call towards your neighbour.

‘We’re at war?’

And you can’t think how something so large could have occurred so unawares, a whole war without your knowledge.

Hannah’s lapse into referring to herself in the second person is a sign of how far she is distracted from herself.

It’s not quite true that only the love story gives Paradise its shape: the 14-chapter structure is also based on the 14 Stations of the Cross. Even if you didn’t hear Kennedy explain as much on Woman’s Hour, you’d be likely to pick up on it when two of the other regulars at Hannah and Robert’s local, Maurice and the Parson ‘(who isn’t a parson)’ are overheard arguing about whether there are 12 Stations or 14. ‘Maurice is doggedly asking for trouble. No one ever discusses religion with the Parson: that’s why we call him the Parson.’ Telling them to stop shouting, Hannah says: ‘It’s not as if you actually are a parson, is it? We just call you that. Because we’re polite.’ Which is when Maurice reveals that the Parson used to be a priest: proving Hannah right, strictly speaking, but putting her firmly in the wrong.

Knowing about the Stations makes sense of things such as Robert’s saying, at the end of the second chapter: ‘I’ll be the cross you have to bear.’ (‘Which meant we parted with a lie,’ Hannah observes.) Or why Hannah’s brother is called Simon (‘a man of Cyrene, Simon by name’ carries Jesus’ cross for him). In Chapter 12 of Paradise, Hannah takes a nightmarish three-day train journey across Canada, her version of Christ’s three days in Hell. The crucifixion appears to be represented, or paralleled, by Hannah’s treading on a nail sticking out of a broken bit of fencing. ‘So I get to feel the odd, slowed sink of my foot as the nail slides clear through the rubber sole of my baseball boot and – in a way that is almost interesting – climbs, as my foot descends on it, to spike in through my skin.’ As it turns out, however, this is a decoy, so you’re especially unprepared for the real blow. After a few weeks of staying with her parents, she goes home to her tip of a flat to find it’s been cleaned and tidied, and there’s a note in the fridge: not from Robert as she expects, but from Simon. What he has to say, for all its mildness, is the saddest, most painful thing in the novel. I’ve never been entirely persuaded by the notion that severe psychic pain is worse than the physical kind, that souls can be hurt worse than soles (they’re not easy to compare, for a start), but you have to allow it to Kennedy, not least because she describes the physical kind so unpleasantly well.

Beyond providing the novel with an exoskeleton, Kennedy’s use of the Stations of the Cross is a defiantly blasphemous ‘fuck you’ to the pieties of the 12-step path to recovery. Hannah is nobody’s saviour, least of all her own. And yet her lack of self-righteousness, together with her wit, is her saving grace: she knows she is no better than she is, and doesn’t try to hide it – at least, not from the reader, or from Robert. She is, in this and every other way, the opposite of her sister-in-law, Simon’s wife. Gillian is a worthwhile citizen, a social worker and a mother-to-be. Even taking Hannah’s jealousy and hatred of her into account, you can’t help but notice Kennedy’s own dislike coming through: almost alone of the characters in the book, Gillian doesn’t even get any convincing – never mind witty – lines of dialogue. And this is a shame, because it is at odds with the novel’s implied insistence that readers extend imaginative sympathy even to those who seem not to deserve it.

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