Lucy and Todd

A. L. Kennedy–Serious Sweet

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:52 am

This is a bold, cinematic novel that covers a lot of territory, its subjects as large, diverse and intimate as addiction, politics, clothing, animals, coffee, the trappings of power, and what little measure of kindness may remain in the world. Not to mention love, and London itself. It has a great feel for London, London on a slightly discomfiting day when you are not sure you want to be there or that you can make the city do what you want.

It would be hard to describe it as a ‘romantic comedy’, although it is a romance and parts of it are terrifically funny. But that is what its ultimate effect is, even though the coming together of hero and heroine is painful to witness.

Jon is a rawther senior civil servant, the ne plus ultra of anonymity. He’s supposedly from Scotland, although aside from some hints about a stultifying childhood in Nairn and some good old Gordounstoun-style school torture, Scotland hasn’t had much effect on him. He’s a thoroughly British, thoroughly messed-up male; the pathetic quality of British maleness is one of the most satisfying themes of the novel. His job of course is never, and can never be, sufficiently explained to himself, or to us, because that’s part of how Whitehall works: it never admits anything, even to itself.

He deals with documents mostly, but sometimes is sent out into the field, Alex Leamas style, to confront someone going haywire or threatening to leak. He even gets beat up at one point. It’s hardly convincing, yet the reader feels that that is what it would be like for someone this neurotic and ineffectual to get beaten up: not very convincing.

AL Kennedy is really entertaining on this milieu, and at times the story looks like it is going to become a full-blown Le Carré, although a kinkier and more descriptive Le Carré. Jon muses on the hierarchical nature of Westminster, even office fitments. He admires the ‘nicely heavy doors’ of the offices of his superiors.

There’s a fetishistic level of interest in clothing throughout this book, particularly among the etiolated senior servants who haunt the plot and Jon’s various paranoias and day-to-day tribulations. A bird craps on him one morning when he has almost arrived at work, necessitating a quick substitution of ‘non-U’ garments, and this is what starts the story rolling. He has to go to an (ugh) off-the-peg clothier’s where the selection of aristo trews appalls him:

‘… pink corduroy, gold corduroy, yellow corduroy, powder-blue corduroy, purple … Christ … it was either that or even more horrifying options in linen – twenty seconds after you’ve got inside it, linen’s like wearing a week-old handkerchief, you can’t win … The predictably garish choices preferred by gentlemen of influence.’

One is intrigued to know how Kennedy can be so good, so accurate on all this stuff, and one might be frightened to know the answer. Has she herself had to intrigue, for our benefit, in the corridors of limp British influence? Hope not.

Like every character in novels about Whitehall, Jon has a secret. It’s an innocuous one: he has advertised himself as a writer of letters to women who are lonely. It’s not pornography; for a fee he simply writes adoring letters to women who would like someone to be nice to them.

The spooks find him out of course and tell him his career’s over, which doesn’t make sense: he’s not an operative, he’s not in an important ministry (we never know which it is) and there’s nothing illegal about writing love letters for money. Is there? The implication is that something tawdry could be made out of it, and as Whitehall is totally tawdry, something will.

One of the recipients of Jon’s pretty sentiments is Meg, a recovering alcoholic, who spends her time fussing over many varieties of coffee-based drinks and working for an animal rescue charity. (There’s a superb Kennedy explication about the character of gun-dogs of the rich in here).

Meg, too, is a writer of an interesting kind. She has suffered greatly at the hands of both Alcoholics Anonymous and some ‘group’ which annoyed the hell out of her in its cloying unhelpfulness, which involved the members patting each other a lot. She’s won her own way in recovery, partly by making a serious effort to write down every incident she witnesses as a Londoner where someone is kind to someone else. These parts of her diary punctuate the neurotic miasma of the love story, and are striking and very touching.

As soon as we have been given a real dose of Jon’s and Meg’s respective problems and obsessions, we know they are fated for each other. We are anxious for them to conjoin. Very soon. Serious Sweet takes place in the course of about a day and a half, yet Kennedy puts so many obstacles, real and psychotic, in the way of Meg and Jon getting together that it seems like a thousand years, even though it is fulfilling when they do.

The actual moment when they fall in love is one of the best descriptions of that major human treat ever.  But if Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr were even half as messed up in the head as these two, you would have walked out of An Affair to Remember after about five minutes.

 

TMcE

 

This review appeared in the Herald, May 7, 2016

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