One of six UK-authored titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist, A L Kennedy’s eighth novel is a treatise on both the politics of love and the politics of politics. Its presence on the list is perhaps no surprise: although it was published in May, before anyone knew the outcome of the EU referendum, Serious Sweet – with shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four – is a satire on Whitehall. Timely, too, in a more literal sense, is the novel’s structural conceit of containing the narrative within a single day (flashbacks aside), which links its literary DNA with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The action focuses on two central characters, Jon Sigurdsson and Meg Williams, who stumble haplessly across the capital towards each other, teetering between civilities and catastrophe. (“In case of apocalypse, take tea,” Jon quips.) A generous reliance on inner monologue – a device that Kennedy employed more frugally in her award-winning 2007 novel, Day – dilutes the plot’s tension in favour of a glutinous psychological interiority.
Jon, a scholarship boy made good, is a 59-year-old, divorced civil servant with moral capital but bankrupt emotional reserves, whose favourite place to visit is Monkey World in Dorset. Meg, a newly sober, actually bankrupt former accountant, is 45 years old and working at a home for damaged animals. Both individuals are navigating perils. Meg is undergoing treatment for precancerous growths, an experience made doubly harrowing by her refusal of anaesthetic. Jon, having stayed too long in Whitehall, providing services that he no longer believes in, is spilling secrets: he is a whistleblower. A self-confessed reality-rephraser-turned-reality-leaker, he wonders, “What is a political party? A conspiracy theory with membership cards.” Later, he decides, “Politics is just an organised and expensive way of being furious.”
They enter each other’s orbit when Jon advertises his services as a writer who, for a small fee and under the pseudonym “Mr August”, will write letters of gentle comfort to female readers. Of his readership, it is Meg who understands that her letter writer needs the immaculate kindness that he posts out. The damage suffered by both characters allows them to see each other clearly – the refrain “to see and see and see” weaves throughout the book – but also intermittently impairs emotional clarity.
They are agonised by intimacy. The closer they become, the harder away they tug. If Jon is a man who can paper over the cracks (adroitly observing of his role as a civil servant, “If you feel that you can’t quite like some part of reality, I’ll step in and rephrase it for you”), Meg “had an interest in damages, you might say; damages and gaps. They could both be educational.” Words on the page – written, erased, reassembled – pull them closer. Meg muses: “I can have faith in words. I like words. I like them more and fucking more.”
Amid this angst are snapshots of altruistic London life as collected by Meg: a man plucks a spinning balloon from mid-air; two women help a distressed fellow passenger at Canada Water Tube station; a father spontaneously introduces a babe in arms to everyone at a café as “Nina”. “Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it,” Meg tells Jon. These observations, lucid and laser sharp, can read like compressed versions of Kennedy’s short stories, such as those in her 2014 collection, All the Rage.
Indeed, this is an author with a proven ability to see – truly see – and whose prose can fire like gunshots across the page. Some lines are to be treasured: “The parakeets were lively already and sleeking about, flaring to a halt and alighting, an alien green that never was here before, bouncing and head cocking in dull trees.” Echoing the fineness at the heart of the book, Meg says she locates “fissures in the world’s hardness, where I can find what’s right, sweet, harmless”. Kennedy delights in seeing the world in a grain of sand, but her best, most tickling gifts lie in upending our assumptions. Lights at Harrods are “white pimples”, letters are “napalm and velvet” and, memorably, the handshake of a minister is “like being handed a warm shit in a sock”.
Aiming for high scores is not without risk. Phrases such as “Jon feeling his own sweat creeping down the back of his neck like the feet of shamed insects” tread a fine line between superb and plain overcooked. Yet Kennedy’s problems lie mostly in sustaining any kind of tautness through the course of a long book – especially when the work is largely a two-hander with an emphasis on interiority. Sometimes things turn sodden. “You find yourself disgusting, because you always do,” Meg thinks, and Jon pronounces: “I am the spineless son of a spineless man.” Voices become diluted. Jon’s voice, specifically, transitions from florid to plain to poetic in the space of a single day.
United in love, undone by their frailties, Jon and Meg make poor page-fellows. Previous works have testified to Kennedy’s faith in love, but with these two characters oscillating between sadness, pessimism and nausea, even Meg gets irritated: “She really does understand being scared – it’s not like he’s so fucking special.”
Ian Rankin once said of London, “It’s a different city if you’ve got money in your pocket.” Kennedy admirably presents this case, lobbing Molotovs at political rottenness and hollow elitism. Yet it is reasonable to expect rewards in return for readers’ time. Bloated novels are a puzzling trend. Had Serious Sweet undergone judicious whittling, its benefits would have been seriously sweeter.
This review first appeared in the New Statesman