The strange necessity of lies
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