Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Blue Book

When I was a kid, I went through a bit of a ghost phase. You know, played with Oiuja boards and read ghost stories and that kind of thing. Weirdly, though, I never really thought about death, it was more about the "life" that comes after that, if that makes sense. Death is a tricky thing for kids to understand, and while most people grow out of that – come to understand the completeness of death, to a degree at least – not everyone does. Or, they do, until someone close to them dies, and then they can't bring themselves to believe that person is gone. This, of course, is where the industry of mediums and psychics comes in, which is a business I am very skeptical of. It's also a practice I would never seek to read a novel about, but nonetheless, that is, in a way, what I got myself into when I picked up A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book.

Wait. Let me back up. The Blue Book isn't precisely about mediums, though that's part of it. The novel itself, though, starts with a line-up to get on an ocean liner. The novel itself is entirely contemporary, except for this quirk of people travelling from England to the U.S. by boat. It's a seven-day journey, and not a cruise since the final destination is New York and there are no little sight-seeing ventures on the way. It is, in a way, a very long ferry ride, and Elizabeth Barber and her boyfriend Derek are along for the ride. In line, Derek is a total grump and Elizabeth is approached by a youngish man who introduces himself as Arthur, call him Art – about her age, which in itself is notable since everyone else seems to be pushing 70 – who asks her to pick a number between one and 10. It's a magic trick of sorts, and although Elizabeth finds it tiresome, she plays along right through to the end, by which time the line is moving again anyway.

Not long after they're aboard, they run into Art again, and he invites himself to dinner with them. He's strange and overly chatty, and when Derek goes to find the washroom, he immediately chastizes Elizabeth (who goes by Beth)'s taste in men. Beth and Derek go back to their cabin, where Derek succumbs to seasickness, leaving Beth free to wander the ship – and go find Art. It is hardly a total surprise that he should become a central character; however, Kennedy's deft handling of their apparently random meetins belie their long and fraught relationship of nearly 20 years. 

Art is a medium. Or, rather, he works as one. He is highly skilled at reading people – something Beth is very much aware of during their interactions – and able to pull just the right strings to get people to open up. Not that he would try that with Beth, though, because she knows his game too well: for many years, she worked with him, as an assistant of sorts, travelling around the U.K. and selling the possibility of reconnecting with loved ones dead and gone. Behind the scenes, they were lovers. And then she couldn't handle it anymore, and she left. And now, here they are, stuck on a ship somewhere in the Atlantic for seven days, with Derek laid up with seasickness, and no real escape from one another.

I'll admit that the setting isn't new. But, oh, what Kennedy does with it. Much of the novel is written in second person (and in parts, the book actually addresses you directly), but Kennedy mixes it up by diving straight into Beth's thoughts and memories and sensations, taking you deep into her first-person experiences. It is incredibly intimate to be given that kind of access to a character as rich and real and complex as Beth, whose breath you can practically feel wafting through the pages. She is a real and vivid personality, and she is captivating. Art gets similar treatment, although we don't get to go so deeply into his here and now. There are sections, though, about his life and his work that blew me away with their emotional punch. 

It is rare to read a novel that feels entirely unique, but truly, The Blue Book is astonishing, and when I finished it, I quite literally gaped at it. I thought, you see, that by the end I had it all figured out, but instead, Kennedy slid in there again and in just a few pages, the entire tone of the story shifted and blocks that I didn't think of as out of place, slid into alignment. In a way, it's like looking into a kaleidoscope: you think the picture is whole and unchanging, and then with one twist new colours and shapes burst to life. Sometimes, when an author does this, you wonder what the point of the preceding 300 pages was – but Kennedy knows better, and like a good magician, the reveal simply enriches everything that came beforehand. It is stunning.

All this rambling praise aside, The Blue Book probably isn't for everyone. I enjoy a challenge, and a novel that doesn't unfold in a linear or expected manner, and I especially enjoy an author who takes creative pleasure in his or her craft. I realize, though, that not everyone takes this approach to reading, and if you don't, The Blue Book might be a bit lost on you (which is not a judgment). However, for the adventurous and/or patient reader, I really can't recommend this highly enough. It took me days to catch my breath after I finished, and part of me just wants to pick it up and start it all over again.

The Blue Book
by A. L. Kennedy
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi edition)

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