on 4 August 2012
Beth and Derek are on a cruise - the youngest people aboard by far. Derek has planned to propose but is miserable and confined to his cabin with seasickness, instead. Beth wanders the decks and meets up with Arthur, a successful fraudulent psychic. It soon becomes clear their meetings are not the result of chance: Beth and Art have a secret history, but what is the truth of it (and them) and will their future be together or apart?
I found this book quite infuriating. Large chunks of the narrative are told in the second person, which in itself was not a problem, but the laborious verbosity was: there are whole swathes of tortured, pretentious, pseudo-philosophising nonsense obscuring what is actually a good story. After the first 50 pages I was on the cusp of giving up. I managed to keep going, though, and by page 100 I had discovered enough of Beth and Arthur to want to learn what had and would happen to them.
As the novel progresses, more and more of their story emerges. It is captivating, and is interrupted by fewer and fewer of the irritating second person interludes which do not add anything to the story. They do, however, slow down the exposition and make the reader keener than ever to get back to the real `action'. This is not an action-packed story; it is about how people get under one another's skin, it's about guilt, power within relationships and it's about love. The tension is expertly built, and the ending leaves the reader hanging. I guessed the reason for Arthur and Beth's separation but its revelation was still wrenching and I was surprised how much I could care about these characters who were kept at such a distance for so long. The ending will not satisfy some readers: it is not perfectly rounded and does not tie off one big loose end, but in this instance & context, this worked.
Ultimately I did enjoy this book, but I found its power and poignancy was diluted a little by the long-winded, overwrought, over-thought passages which simply irritated me. The remainder of the story was sufficient to overcome my irritation but it felt like hard work to wade through to that point and I think unfortunately the style will put off a lot of readers before they reach it.
on 26 November 2011
For anyone thinking of giving up near the beginning, as a number of reviewers here have said, don't, persist and you will be rewarded.
I almost put it down somewhere around the 30-50 page mark where there's a long dense stream of conciousness, I persisted through this mainly due to the tantalising opening section where the book talks to you and /reads you/ rather than vice versa. It then opens into a multi-layered set of revelation with the whole coming together with a moving, clever and ironic ending that solidly ties the whole of the book together. I'd like to comment and discuss the ending more but it would be a dreadful spoiler.
If anyone can give any detailed insight into the the specific meaning of page numbering in the body of the book I'd be interested to hear.
Also mine was a library copy, I was supposedly the first reader but a number of the pages were dog eared, which made me wonder if this was another trick in the printing of this fine physical volume.
Was my first A.L.Kennedy, I'll be reading out more.
Some books are wonderful, but uncomfortable reading. This is one of them.
The Blue Book is ostensibly the story of Elizabeth, a woman who is on a cruise with her boyfriend, Derek where she is forced to confront her past life as a fake medium, with Arthur, an ex-boyfriend whom she has now left, but still sees on and off for no-strings attached sex. But please don't be put off by the summary on the jacket, because AL Kennedy's beautiful and complex writing breathes life into the story and characters in a way that made me feel really alive.
This is a story about doubt and how it eats away at people- Elizabeth's frenetic, innermost thoughts are told in italicised text. This is a story about settling. This is a story about love and how we want to keep things from those that we love, so much that we come to believe the fictions we have invented. Kennedy's characters are not necessarily sympathetic ones and frustratingly they often do not make the choices that would resolve their problems and make them happy -at one point Arthur says "what is the point of all this over-thinking if we never do anything with it?"- but that pig-headedness is what makes them, if not likeable, at least real and human.
I don't want to say too much, because some of the story does rely on the plot, and details are revealed gradually, but this book is worth reading purely for the description of how terrifying it can be to fall in love with someone. Kennedy's writing is poetic and wonderful and, as expected, the boat setting provides the opportunity for plenty of dark comedy.
Other reviewers and the Amazon blurb have already outlined the plot so I shall skip that. In any case, this is not a plot-driven novel, though there are discoveries to be made, some devastating, about our protagonists.
If you've never read A.L. Kennedy before (as I hadn't) then you need to know that she's an extremely clever, post-modern writer - something which had put me off her previous books. But I'm very happy to have been proved wrong as I liked this very much and found it surprisingly moving, not something I usually expect from tricksy, clever-clever books.
The narrative flips between a neutral narrator, a more typical 3rd person narrator from Elizabeth's point of view, and a stream-of-consciousness in Elizabeth's head: the latter is written not in fragmented, unpunctuated Woolf/James Joyce style but as proper sentences, albeit in italics. The reason for this does become clear at the end.
I liked Elizabeth's sharp, sometimes slyly funny voice ("being annoyed is almost indistinguishable from being right-wing... if State Socialism had been more sensible, it wouldn't have generated all those queues" p.10), but thought this was going to be a book which held me at arm's length, cold and detached.
Instead, beneath the tricksiness, the book transforms into something far more intimate, almost desperate and needy. There are points at which the story is unashamedly cruel, but it is also true and tender with, at its heart, one of the most lyrical evocations of love I have ever read.
So this is definitely a book which belied my preconceptions. The title, the tricky page numbering (I'm not sure this would work on a Kindle), even the beautiful look and feel of the hardcover edition itself, all become crucial to the story that is being told. This isn't an easy, throwaway read - it demands your attention and concentration - but I ended up loving it. Highly recommended.
If reading is supposed to be a pleasure, then A L Kennedy's The Blue Book certainly did what it was supposed to do. To start with, the presentation of the book is lovely with its deep blue and gold cover with blue-edged pages.
We read of Elizabeth ("Beth") Barber, about to sail across the Atlantic on a ship, with her middle-aged boy-friend Derek who looks as though he might be proposing to her before they reach New York. But Elizabeth has a past - she has been one half of a team of stage clairvoyants and her ex-partner in psychic manipulation, Arthur, is still very much in her thoughts.
As Elizabeth and Derek wait to board the boat, we get drawn into Elizabeth's private thoughts (something that will recur throughout the book):
"Why are we here? We're not "cruise people". We're not quoits and gin slings and rubbers of bridge people. Or being driven past monuments at speed with optional commentary people. We are not "tonight will be the 1974 theme disco in the Galaxy Room" people. Why are we here? Why am I here? Why am I here with Derek?"
While still queuing she finds herself harassed by a man doing magic tricks - "think of a number", and leading her through a routine which ends up in the pages of a book which predicts her first answer. But Elizabeth finds that it is a trick book with false page numbers. And lo and behold, we begin to leaf through the book we are reading, The Blue Book, and find that the the page numbers here are also mixed up and deceiving (Kindle readers of this book will be missing something here). Is this going to be a straightforward read? I think A L Kennedy, with her other career as a stand up comedian, is going to trick her readers and make them wonder what exactly is real in this intriguing story.
The Atlantic crossing is exceptionally rough and poor Derek is confined to his cabin, as close to the bathroom as possible. This leaves Beth at a loose end and as she wanders the ship she keeps encountering the trickster from the queue but is also drawn into a relationship with a comforting elderly couple who try to take her under their wing. Meanwhile we hear much more about stage clairvoyance by flashing back to the Beth and Arthur double-act, which as we may suppose consisted of Beth researching attenders at the "readings" and passing inside information onto the charismatic Arthur. But Arthur is not so much a trickster as a counsellor who sees beyond the trickery to the comfort his revelations bring to his trouble audience.
As we know, the double-act is no more and Arthur has is now achieving great success delivering one-to-one clairvoyance and counselling of wealthy American widows. We discover that Beth and Arthur still meet up for weekends of turbulent sex, which Beth finds comforting but deeply unsettling, but how can she break this almost other-world ordained partnership when the only alternative is the dull and mundane Derek, now nosily vomiting in his cabin.
The book moves steadily through the Atlantic crossing revealing more and more about the relationship between Beth and Arthur. It is going to be very difficult for Beth ever to get him out of her system. Revelation after revelation draws us into an unwinding story, the climax of which is finally revealed with poetry and grace.
I think I agree with the publisher's blurb that this book offers "illusions and false trails, magical numbers and redemptive humour". Its a great read which brings pleasure not only through the novelty of the story but the fine writing which has the power to occasionally stop this reader in his tracks. Its a sharp, clever book, but also funny and insightful.
A.L. Kennedy has already gained quite a following with her previous novels. The Blue Book will certainly not disappoint.
Set on a cruise ship, but filmically moving from past to present, The Blue Book is a complex novel which sets out to explore the nature of our relationships. The device of the ship serves to isolate the central three characters, Beth, our narrator, Derek, her remote partner, and Arthur, a Jungian figure from her past. The triangle thus created is haunted by a missing figure whose influence permeates the novel but is only fully present in the end.
A.L. Kennedy commands a spare prose style and skilfully uncovers the implicit deceits and lies that are central to the way we establish relationships. So why only 4 stars? As often with this gifted writer, it is hard to form a bond with any of her main characters. This is a deliberate authorial ploy: but it does make the novel sometimes a taxing read.
Despite the slight reservation above, this is an interesting novel that bears rereading: and I recommend it warmly.
on 19 October 2011
When Elizabeth embarks on a cruise with her partner, Derek, they encounter a man whom the reader imagines to be an eccentric stranger. It soon transpires that he isn't there by accident. His name is Arthur and he shares a past with Elizabeth. Elizabeth has been using Derek to try to forget that past and find some semblance of normality, but Arthur's presence, and Derek's unfolding obnoxiousness put paid to that plan.
Initially I found this book overly-descriptive, pretentious and deliberately obfuscating. I didn't like Elizabeth's stream-of-consciousness internal monologues and I didn't like its clever little deceptions with the characters or with the page numbers. It felt self-indulgent
It eventually dawned that the tricks A L Kennedy plays with page numbers are related to the code that Arthur and Elizabeth used in their former `communicating with the dead' racket. That added a layer of interest but was also a distraction, prompting the reader to flick through pages of text to find out what the numbers signified. It took me a while to work out how much `pain' and `loss' came up as headers. Other key words were significant but I won't give too much away.
I was speaking to someone recently who told me that it took her years to realise that she didn't have to finish a book that she didn't enjoy. This was a source of relief for her. My journey has tended to be in the opposite direction, but perseverance has its rewards. It was at least two thirds of the way through before I realised that the stream of consciousness that had so irritated me had a narrative justification and wasn't just a literary device. Elizabeth's voice lacks coherence because she is damaged, traumatised, and her pain is real. The Blue Book is worth sticking with. It all comes together eventually, not just stylistically, but emotionally.
Just as an aside; Julian Barnes, at the Booker Awards Ceremony, described his prize winning novel as `a beautiful object' and said, `if the physical book ...is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.' This book does look like that, at least the hardback version. It is a thing of beauty, with soft paper, clear text, nicely designed endpapers and the page-ends richly coloured to match the cover.
Novels have become disposable items, despatched to the charity shop or hawked on Amazon when they've been read. It would be nice to see the return of the book as an object of design, like nineteenth century folios. It is a shame, aside from graphic novels, that book illustration is now confined to covers. I doubt we'll ever go back to glossy pictures of key scenes as found in some editions of Victorian novels, but isn't there scope for more visual input? However, I digress. Jonathan Cape have done Kennedy proud. It's a keeper.
P.S. Am I the only person reviewing this who isn't an Amazon Vine reviewer? I'm working hard here. Where's my free stuff??
Elizabeth and Derek are on a cruise together but we soon find out that Elizabeth's heart is somewhere else, with her ex-lover, the charismatic Arthur. Elizabeth and Arthur worked together as fake mediums and deception and self-deception is what this book is all about. Elizabeth was also the daughter of a conjurer and The Blue Book uses all the gimmicks of stage magicians and clairvoyants, from secret codes to palming, from card forcing to cold reading, to cast its spell. Much of the story is told in Elizabeth's (very literary) stream of consciousness, which may put many readers off, but at its best it offers a formidable insight into a passionate relationship, how the power shifts from moment to moment and how hard we struggle to convince ourselves and our partners that we are doing the right thing.
The book itself, which at times addresses us directly, is not to be taken at face value as it too is playing games with us (just keep an eye on the page numbers). This is a heady brew indeed; does Kennedy's concoction work? Most of the time, yes. Occasionaly it feels a little too clever for its own good, but there is a depth and poetry in the writing that draws us back in again. Not an easy book but a deceptively fascinating one.
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.
on 9 April 2012
Like some of the other reviewers here, I gave up on this book, something which I very rarely do, around page 130 ... but then I returned to it, determined not to let it beat me! I wonder why the first 130 pages or so are so difficult and dense and uninviting, because the remainder of the book, for me, at least, proved to be much more readable.
However, I still found it very lacking overall and can only give it two stars. The very heavy use of italics, capitals and even bold italics (which in the Bembo typeface used in the hardback edition are very bold indeed), is jarring to the eye. Some authors (Nicola Barker included) may think it clever to break typographical conventions, but there is a good reason why those conventions exist!
As others have pointed out, the characters are not particularly likeable; in fact I didn't feel we even got to know them much, despite some of Arthur and Beth's 'back story' emerging right towards the end. For me this made it hard to engage with the story.
Either it is going way over my head, or the tricks and codes in the book, as described in the publisher's blurb and by other reviewers, are massively exaggerated. True, there is a simple code mapping numbers to words which is exposed about halfway, and reappears at the end, and there are some strange page numbers which appear at the tops of pages (while the correct numbers appear at the bottom), but is there really some clever game-playing going on between the book and its reader? If so, I missed it.
Like one or two other reviewers here, I really wanted to like this beautifully presented and ostensibly mysterious book. I have a lot of time for A. L. Kennedy as a critic and social commentator, and she was hugely entertaining at the 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival, but I am coming to the conclusion that she is more entertaining as a personality than she is readable as a novelist -- very much like Will Self in that regard.