If terms like "post modern novel" send shivers down your spine, then AL Kennedy's "The Blue Book" won't be for you. It's intriguing, at times challenging and often frustrating, but at times brilliant and often very funny - as befits a writer whose other activities include stand-up comedy. The story takes place on a stormy transatlantic sea voyage, and while the obvious metaphor of the storm on the protagonists lives is clear, the metaphor also holds true for the reading experience - at times it feels like the author is on the crest of a wave and you are swept along with her skillful writing, while at others it's easy to get lost and feel, well, all at sea. Her writing style is, well, choppy. There were passages where I felt that this was one of the best things I've read in a long time, and others where it felt perhaps a little too clever for its own good and maybe even a tad pretentious. Ultimately the final twist hits you in an unexpected way though.
Beth Barber is taking a trip to New York with her boyfriend, Derek, who we believe plans to propose to her on the trip, but the encounter with an apparent stranger called Arthur, and the onset of a bout of seasickness rather destroy Derek's plans. Beth was formerly involved, romantically and professionally, in a con trick double act as fake mediums - of which poor Derek is completely unaware. It's here that Kennedy starts to really play with the reader's mind. She presents arguments that seem to morally justify Beth and her partner's efforts to provide reassurance to the living from the land of the dead. Can it ever be morally justified? Almost certainly not, but there are passages where Kennedy will have you wondering.
The con trick was carried out using a system of hidden codes and these feature throughout the book. One of the author's acknowledgments it to Derren Brown and we are never sure what is the truth or if we are being impacted by subliminal codes throughout the book. There's a duel page numbering thing going on and randomly pages will be numbered completely out of sequence. If there is a message here, then it was somewhat lost on me I have to confess. It is, however, a book that I suspect would benefit from a second read at some point.
For me the best passages are Beth's internal dialogue which are often hilariously funny and very well observed - very much in the manner of observational stand-up. Quite how truthful anything in this book is though is distinctly open to question. We know there are lies and deceptions throughout and that can be unsettling. It's far from clear, until very late on, what the book is or even whose story this is. Certainly here is much to dislike about both Beth and Arthur, though poor Derek is undoubtedly the victim of both their stories.
There is also some fairly strong language throughout, particularly the F-word and a fair dose of the C-word - which will probably put some people off. Just a warning that if that sounds like you, then probably best to avoid.
It's a book that is hard to be ambiguous about. It will either leave you with an adrenalin rush of surviving a storm or will leave you feeling somewhat seasick. Like the physical book itself, which is at least in the hardback version beautifully designed and presented with blue edged pages, the colour blue is either cool or will leave you cold. It's not an easy book to get a grip of, and the constant misdirections and symbols can get wearing. In general, I'm coming down on the side of this being really very good indeed - it made me think and ask questions, but it is also a little frustrating particularly in the back-story elements. However, I absolutely loved the present day elements on board the ship and the interaction of Beth and her fellow passengers.