The strange ne­ces­sity of lies

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MONIQUE PO­LAK

On the long list for the pres­ti­gious Orange Prize for Fic­tion, The Blue Book is about lies, lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture and love. In it, Scot­tish au­thor A.L. Kennedy demon­strates how, like the finest works of fic­tion, some lies can save us.

The Blue Book is full of magic and ma­gi­cians. These ma­gi­cians un­der­stand, as writ­ers do, that “any word can work a spell if you know how to use it.”

Its pro­tag­o­nist, El­iz­a­beth Caro­line Barker, is a ma­gi­cian’s daugh­ter fa­mil­iar with sleights of hand. El­iz­a­beth is on the run from her past, when she worked — to­gether with a part­ner — as a psy­chic.

Now she finds her­self on a lux­ury cruise ship with boyfriend Derek, who shows wor­ri­some signs that he may be about to pro­pose to her. Derek is a re­li­able man. “He doesn’t do ap­palling things.” In this way, he stands in sharp con­trast to Arthur Lock­wood, who also turns up aboard the ship. El­iz­a­beth’s for­mer lover, Arthur is the other half of the dou­ble act she wants so des­per­ately to put be­hind her.

There are many clever, wry observatio­ns here about cruise ship life. It is, El­iz­a­beth re­flects, “an en­vi­ron­ment pre­pared for peo­ple who are quite ter­ri­bly afraid of be­ing left to their own de­vices.” The cruise ship of­fers its own brand of de­cep­tion. El­iz­a­beth notes how cou­ples pose for pho­to­graphs be­fore the back­drop of a set­ting sun, “the ac­tual set­ting sun hav­ing dis­ap­peared much ear­lier in more al fresco and un­pre­dictable sur­round­ings.”

Kennedy seems to be telling us that peo­ple want lies, some­times re­quir­ing them to sur­vive.

Arthur (it’s no co­in­ci­dence El­iz­a­beth calls him “Art”) spe­cial­izes in these sorts of lies. Even with­out El­iz­a­beth as his part­ner, he con­tin­ues to pro­vide his psy­chic ser­vices, mostly to wealthy women. He puts them in contact with their dearly de­parted. Sat­is­fied, his cus­tomers pass on his name “like an in­fec­tion.”

To re­deem him­self, Arthur oc­ca­sion­ally does some pro bono work. In an es­pe­cially har­row­ing chap­ter, we see him work with a Montreal woman maimed dur­ing the Rwan­dan geno­cide: “Agathe sur­vived, which is an ex­tremely mis­lead­ing word.”

Psy­chics have a term for peo­ple who, like Agathe, seek their ser­vices: en­quir­ers. El­iz­a­beth un­der­stands — too well — the rules of the game: “an en­quirer is told some­thing im­por­tant.” In this way, the reader is an en­quirer, too.

Arthur’s work, though lu­cra­tive, comes at a cost. It’s a cost the writer of fic­tion must also bear: “Be­ing in other peo­ple, be­ing other By A.L. Kennedy House of Anansi

Press 384 pages;

$22.95 peo­ple, feel­ing into who they are and how they are” de­pletes Arthur.

The Blue Book is an in­ter­est­ing, am­bi­tious work. But in it, Kennedy, who has twice been se­lected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Nov­el­ists, is some­times like a too-doted-upon child, too ea­ger to per­form, an eye al­ways on her au­di­ence. This would be an even bet­ter book had it had a tougher, less in­dul­gent ed­i­tor.

El­iz­a­beth and Arthur are in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters with in­ter­est­ing pasts. Both have rea­sons to fear com­mit­ment. But Arthur’s slav­ish de­vo­tion to El­iz­a­beth feels false and ren­ders him some­what un­ap­peal­ing. Derek, who spends most of the cruise suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of sea­sick­ness, never emerges as a cred­i­ble con­tender for El­iz­a­beth’s af­fec­tions.

El­iz­a­beth will have to choose be­tween these two. Should she do what seems right or give in to what feels right? El­iz­a­beth thinks she knows the an­swer: “lov­ing the unlov­able is stupid, is self-harm — lov­ing the rea­son­able is what I need.”

It’s ironic, of course, that in a book about the power, and even the ne­ces­sity, of lies, hon­esty turns out to be the true test of a re­la­tion­ship.

But be­neath the sur­face, The Blue Book isn’t about re­la­tion­ships at all. It’s about the seek­ing we do when we read a work of fic­tion, the in­ti­macy we es­tab­lish with imag­i­nary char­ac­ters. Kennedy works her own best magic in this realm, her book “so close … that if it were a per­son you might kiss.”

The Blue Book

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