One of the most frustrating things about this book by A.L. Kennedy is how close it came to being precisely my thing and how far it ultimately fell short. A lot of the books on the Booker long list this year have been books that I can acknowledge as being well crafted while not really suiting my tastes. I wouldn’t object to seeing those books on the shortlist, even though I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for them. They just didn’t speak to me. Serious Sweet often did, loudly and beautifully. But at more than 500 pages, it’s just too much. It’s working too hard to be a profound big book, screaming look at my brilliance! But the lovely, moving story at its core is enough. All that folderal is a distraction.
The novel follows two people, Meg and Jon, through a day that both expect to be special, but they have to get through their weekday routine first. Jon has to go to his government job, and Meg has a medical appointment followed by a shift at the animal shelter where she works part time. At first, their days don’t appear connected, but the link between them gradually becomes clear, and the stakes go up.
As Jon and Meg go through the day, we read all their stray thoughts about what they see, what they hope, what aggravates them. We get to know them both well. Meg is a bit of a grouch, but she’s vulnerable (and not grouchy to hide her vulnerability—she hides the grouchiness, too). She keeps to herself, recovering from a traumatic and difficult past, but hoping that this day will bring a new life. Meg’s inner monologue often made me laugh, as in this stray thought about an annoying but harmless co-worker:
If I pray for her, this will allegedly remove the burden of picturing her being run over by a van. Or the effort of pushing her under the van. But if I do pray for her, I’d only be able to ask God, or the angels, or whoever’s supposed to be listening, to grant that Laura ends up—who cares how—underneath a fucking van.
This is uncharitable. And counterproductive, surely.
I liked Meg. I liked that she tries and fails and tries again. I like that she wants. I liked that this was a book that allowed a 40-something single woman to be like this, frail and thorny and tough, all at the same time.
Jon was harder to warm up to. His story involves what felt to me like a ridiculous plot involving sharing government secrets. It would have been enough to have him just be a harried government worker, with too many crises to manage. I also felt that Kennedy was trying too hard to make him a “good and sensitive man.” (I confess that I was under the misapprehension that A.L. Kennedy was a man, which might have affected my reading.) He’s divorced, but he still waters his ex’s plants, and he wants badly to give love to someone who needs it. He seemed not quite real to me, and his inner voice never grabbed me.
Interspersed with the story of Meg and Jon’s day are little vignettes of various people around London. There’s a woman who falls down an escalator, a middle-aged autistic woman who missed her train, an older couple embracing, a young man playing music. They’re moments of connection, often involving strangers giving help to strangers. Many of these are lovely, but they aren’t needed and they don’t really add much. They make the book feel like it’s making an effort at profundity, when Jon and Meg’s story is enough.
If the vignettes, many of the inner monologues, and some of the extra plot points were dropped from this book, I could have loved it. But as it is, I often ended up skimming when a character’s thoughts went on and on and on. I understand that Kennedy might have been attempting something along the lines of Ulysses, but I’ve never been inclined to read Ulysses because I suspect my reaction would be the same. So maybe this approach has brilliance that doesn’t speak to me. But if the parts that didn’t speak to me were stripped away, this book would have been brilliant in a different way. I would have wanted to give it all the prizes.