Serious Sweet by AL Kennedy | Jonathan Cape, 519pp, £17.99
AL Kennedy is known as a writer of exquisite precision, and there are examples of this in the interludes – snapshots of London scenes – in this surprisingly baggy monster of a novel. In one sense it’s a public novel, angrily political, taking aim at the inequalities, injustices and callous harshness apparent in Britain today. For many this will hit the nail bang on the head, and they will applaud a novelist expressing her idea of a writer’s social responsibility so eloquently.
The novel takes the form of a day in the life of two characters, a very full day, even if certain scenes must be flashbacks. Jon Sigurdsson, born in Nairn, is a civil servant approaching retirement who has come to hate and despise his masters, and the policies he is required to further. So he has been leaking government documents to an old-style drunken hack, a character disappointingly from central casting. Jon’s career is on the skids, and emotionally he is in a mess, divorced and disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend. One passage , showing Kennedy at her considerable best, recounts a weekend break he took with his daughter in Berlin. In his distress after his divorce Jon has embarked on an unusual ploy – therapy? – advertising his services as a writer of friendly, loving, comforting letters to ladies. Unusual? Yes. Improbable? Yes. Credible? In Kennedy’s telling, certainly. His masters who keep him under surveillance don’t fail to learn of this activity; sad case, old Sigurdsson.
Meg Williams is one of the women who reply to his advertisement. She is a bankrupt accountant, an alcoholic, now shakily and nervously sober for a year, holding down a job in the office of an animal charity. She finds Jon’s letters touching and helpful. She spies on the address from which they come: a PO box in Shepherd Market. She hangs about there, and, yes, of course identifies Jon as Mr August the delightful letter-writer. She accosts him, and, yes, the novel is a love story too.
That’s the outline, in conception a good one, well-suited to Kennedy’s talent and her characteristically oblique and original way of seeing the world. The private theme – severely damaged people coming together in search of love and comfort, and the renewal of hope – can be married persuasively, again in conception, to the ever more bleak and nasty world with which we are presented; a world which is made tolerable and perhaps redeemed only by those moments of kindness and decency revealed in the snapshots Meg presents us with. It shouldn’t matter that neither Jon nor Meg is an attractive character or one with whom in real life one wouldn’t want to spend much time. Only bad readers suppose that a novel requires to have characters with whom you are happy to identify.
Yet the conception of a novel is one thing, the execution another; and it is in execution that this one surprisingly fails – surprisingly because Kennedy is usually a writer who brings off what she sets herself to do. Here much of the novel consists of what goes on the heads of the two main characters (who are really the only ones to whom she seeks to give any convincing life); these passages of silent monologues are printed in italics. Most of these passages are long, rambling and of an unrelieved banality. Both Jon and Meg wallow in self-pity, which is natural but tiresome. Both employ a very limited vocabulary, in which the f-word, as noun, verb or adjective is employed with a frequency which surprises but doesn’t convince. Meg to some extent rings true, Jon hardly does at all. It doesn’t matter that he’s a bore – novelists can make good use of bores; it does matter that he is never brought to persuasive life. He is an idea which has not been realized.
Ultimately, and surprisingly in view of Kennedy’s talent, this novel fails on two counts. There is a failure of language which, except in these snapshots, is woolly and imprecise; and there is a failure of structure, which is largely the consequence of a self-indulgent wordiness and disregard of economy. At half the length this might have been a good novel. At over 500 pages it reads like a betrayal of the author’s finest qualities.