Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

21/08/04, The Times

Escape haunts A.L. Kennedy. In her previous novel, Everything You Need, Nathan Staples contemplated the impossible salvations of love from his retreat in remote Foal Island. Kennedy herself escaped to Spain at a painful juncture in her life to write about bullfighting. In Paradise, forty year-old Hannah Luckraft escapes into the warm, insidious womb of alcohol, but it takes fifteen-odd pages or so to work out that the first-person narration is that of an alcoholic’s. The blurb doesn’t help you either, deliberately withholding information in its sly misguiding. But that tired shorthand, ‘first-person narration’, doesn’t even begin to approach the comprehensiveness with which Kennedy inhabits the staccato, intermittent illuminations of an alcoholic’s consciousness, that lurching through speeded-up points of time. Writing about alcoholism is not exactly virgin territory – Tennessee Williams, Greene, Lowry, Patrick Hamilton immediately spring to mind – but no one has written about the dip-and-soar, the sharp jags of an alcoholic’s consciousness, with such incandescent conviction.

Born and brought up in a small town near Aberdeen, Hannah Luckraft started drinking early. At the point the novel opens, she’s emerging fitfully from another alcohol-induced blackout. The trajectory is familiar – long-suffering and alienated family; a series of short-term dead-end jobs (selling cardboard punnets to farmers being one of them); an enforced trip to a clinic in Western Canada; illness, delirium tremens, brief periods of being on the wagon and then the inevitable slide; despair, depression, the sheer irreversibility of addiction; and, centrally, a crackling, consuming love with another alcoholic, Robert Gardener, that holds out its own bitter and besmirched salvation. It is only a knife’s edge away from annihilation but it’s the only salvation Hannah can have.  

The propulsive force of Paradise is Hannah Luckraft’s voice, a kind of epiphany in contemporary writing itself. It’s a digressive, indirectional, garrulous book; what plotline there is, is a fractured starburst of loquacity. And what loquacity it is too – a swaggering, funny, pull-no-punches reinvention of the stream of consciousness but not as the unpunctuated welter one usually understands by it; this is prose as sharp (and as forensic) as the edge of a surgical scalpel, as bright as a lit tungsten filament. It is a critical commonplace to assume that no one does bleak like Kennedy but no one does funny like her, either, and it is this seemingly incongruous yoking of the bleak with a furious, firecracking and relentless comic energy that gives Paradise its frisson. The book sings its encapsulated pain with the effervescent energy of laughter.

It is a measure of Kennedy’s greatness as a writer of pyrotechnic comic prose that the fireworks display also manages to show us the deeply tenebrous spaces that lie just outside the edges of words. She can change the emotional weather radically with a punctuation mark, or the strategic positioning of a single word. Her sentences have a habit of sending one back to the everyday reality one inhabits, to touch everything in it, to savour it again, because she has altered its entire landscape and recreated it anew.

There are scenes that can be described in no way other than as writing touched by grace: an episode with a Mr Hitt, a sufferer of severe alcohol-induced dementia, feeding a swan; a Passion mimed by children in an empty church; a shopping-channel show on television that a sober Hannah and a drunk Robert watch, their moods and sensibilities of the moment out of phase with each other’s. This is Kennedy’s bleakest book – it questions the whole notion of salvation itself – but it is also an existential book in the strictest sense of the term: she has delivered a tangible, falling soul up to her readers.