Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

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Reviewed by Julie Barham

It is probably a good thing to sometimes read outside our comfort zone. For me, Paradise was such a book. It is a reprint, though originally published as recently as 2004; part of a Vintage Scottish classics series. Though definitely fictional, it made me genuinely concerned for its central character, such was the strength and honesty of its writing.

Hannah Luckraft is an alcoholic. This novel is essentially written as an unstructured account of her dependence and existence through periods of relative sobriety and bad sessions where she pushes herself and those around her to pain, both physical and mental. Her family demonstrate loving concern and incomprehension as to why she acts as she does, as they struggle to help and accommodate her. Her lover’s own dependence on her and on alcohol contribute to her problems while also providing a distraction, perhaps even a support against her problems. She is an unreliable narrator, and the book is not a simple linear progression or descent, but a series of memories and reflections on what has happened, what is happening to one individual in a very recognisable world.

The space to think, to react, to ponder on life and people is what made this book work for me. It opens as Hannah is wondering where she is, waking to see a large clock and not knowing whether the time it shows is am or pm. She finds other clues; keys, money, a vague memory of uncharacteristic behaviour, confusion as to which country she is in. This is not a book about the boring nature of daily life as for various reasons Hannah travels around Britain and Europe, giving ample opportunity to react to different people and situations. There are examples of cunning and deceit being used to buy alcohol, to escape from where she finds herself. This is not a novel for the easily shocked, as encounters with Robert are fulsomely described, as well as other behaviour which shows just how desperate she becomes.

This book’s strength lies in its observations. There are some touching passages about Hannah’s childhood, including her belief that ‘Eldest and only children, we’re worriers.’ The cause of this is the fear with which new parents treat their precious firstborn, ‘Their fears for us weaken the air above our faces’. She contrasts this with the second children ‘over whom they hardly ever seem to fret.’, leaving the first born to worry and care. There is the harsh sister in law, a farcical episode involving a wheelchair, and a cough-mixture-fuelled church attendance. It is not a miserable book, but it is a tough one. Its lack of structure means that Kennedy can explore the absurdity of modern life, as well as her own challenges. Conversations seem real, as she and Robert discuss films (Ice Cold in Alex) and the tense family relationships which emerge as her brother and parents try to help her survive.

I cannot say that this is an enjoyable book. It is a brilliantly written book which left me wondering just how much was real and how much the narrator was dealing with her unwell soul. It is a serious, honest account of life in our times, with so much reality it is almost painful. I cannot think of another book which I have read which involved me in the same way, and it is a powerful picture of reality for one person with all their strengths and weakness.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader

A.L. Kennedy, Paradise (Vintage: London, 2015.)  9781784870423, 368 pp., paperback.

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