As a college student, the protagonist of Scottish author A. L. Kennedy’s sixth novel studied the military/national-security concept of mutually assured destruction. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Beth was drawn to this “great conversation-stopper, not bad at emptying rooms”, especially when you consider the claustrophobic setting of The Blue Book: a cruise ship that’s slowly lumbering westward across the Atlantic—and that contains not only Beth and her current boyfriend (and possibly soon-to-be fiancé) but also Arthur, the man with whom she’s had a number of passionate, deeply felt flings over the years. Right away, you can tell nobody’s going to walk away unscathed.
Deception and illusion are indeed the names of the game here, but that’s got less to do with Beth’s reluctance to commit than it does with her and Arthur’s former profession. For years they made a name for themselves on the amateur medium circuit, pretending to channel their audience’s dead loved ones for profit. But they’re also code nerds who came up with complicated strings of numbers that only they could decipher. In fact, this is precisely how Arthur first makes contact with Beth onboard, in a wonderful sleight of hand on Kennedy’s part.
The Blue Book has a tiny cast of characters, and takes place slowly, over a handful of days and scenes. But it fills out to novel proportions by demonstrating how everything we do—every action, every thought—is completely weighed down by our past. Sometimes it takes Beth a dozen pages to walk down a hallway, and that’s because she’s constantly trawling over every inch of her emotional depths. And Kennedy doesn’t so much describe these memories as whip up cyclones of prose around them, loaded with dashes and fragmented asides. It’s a bracing approach, as well as a draining one.
All of which is further compounded by a series of chapters where Kennedy speaks directly to the reader. The very first lines of the novel are: “But here this is, the book you’re reading. Obviously.” It tries to charm you the same way Arthur and Beth did their grieving customers. Of course, there’s a larger game being played here, too—and Kennedy relishes it, waiting until the novel’s heartbreaking coda to finally lay all of her cards on the table.
House of Anansi, 384 pp, $22.95, softcover
(review originally appeared in the Georgia Straight, September 6, 2012)