There was a time when I feared that Alison Kennedy’s undoubted knack for whimsy might distract her from the growing strengths that make her like no other contemporary writer. But she has breasted the high seas of her talent and is now able to express the preoccupations that lie in the depths. The title story of Original Bliss, her recent collection of short stories, displayed a gambolling ease with those slippery escape artists, love and sex. She has the richest pornographic empathy of any female writer working in English today (within the ‘literary’ canon; I don’t know about the topshelfers, but I doubt they can match her delicacy, veracity, and avoidance of clinical words as well as of euphemisms).
This new novel is exceedingly ambitious. It is the story of a quest, of an almost knightly series of ordeals, over a period of seven years. At its profoundest level it is a story of father-daughter love lost and found, and a long look at the business of being a writer – or rather, of writing itself, if you are minded to do so, never forgetting that the progress is slow and the rewards nugatory, if existent.
Nathan Staples, the central figure of this very long book, lives on a small island off Wales in a community of writers. This sounds tame enough. Have we not read Lively, Lurie, Mackay on such set-ups? Don’t be misled. The first page we spend with Nathan describes a torture of the utmost horror, involving eyeballs subsiding into froth. Although Kennedy is skilful in the description of such things, I wonder if she is wise to introduce us to her humane book, whose most frequently used adjective is probably ‘tender’, with quite such a display of mental violence in her protagonist.
Suicide occupies a formal place in the book’s search for truth, and Nathan is making ready for it when we meet him. He is a man who writes remunerative stuff, and hates himself for it; he has also lost his wife and daughter and hates himself for that, too. We soon come to like him, to believe in his Scots extraction, and by the end to be devoted to him. This would not have been possible without the considerable scale Kennedy allows herself. While I find many fat books written nowadays puffy with artifice, this one left me wanting more, and also with the delightedly frustrated sense that it had stopped at the perfect anticipatory moment, expecting either bliss or disaster.
Maura, Nathan’s wife, left him many years before, and deposited their daughter, Mary, upon her brother Bryn and his lover, Morgan. In a short book these exemplarily gay individuals might have contracted to ciphers. Here they extend for the most part happily and convincingly when Kennedy sets a scene that is anywhere near domestic.
Mary, who doesn’t know Nathan is her father, comes in statu pupillari (one of this book’s wee kinks is its use of Latin; I dote on that, but get a bit narked with the tic of painlessly translating it for the reader) to learn from him how to write. In the unrealistic but believable fashion that Kennedy seems to handle with a deal less fuss than Jeanette Winterson, we are asked to believe that an intelligent and beautiful girl would submit herself to a systematic shriving at the hands of a number of unappealing elders in the middle of the sea, including bogus meetings in an upper room.
This pearly naïvety is one of the charms of Kennedy’s paradoxical style, which can at other times, for example when the action moves to the world of metropolitan publishing, be exhilaratingly jaded and malicious. The unworthy pleasure I got from her almost casual rudeness about Bookbiz and its prizes, bints and liggers was great.
Nathan has a dog, whose name, to my regret, is Eckless. So I waited, miserably, for the missing F or R. But that’s a small complaint. This author has always been superb on creatures, coming up to the high canine standard of Iris Murdoch. Eckless is not only a fine dog, he is a device, and he works in the literary and the heraldic sense.
While Kennedy seems to me to have a delicate and admirable way with sadomasochism, I’ve always fought shy of business about amputees, and am distinctly unmoved to intimacy with sharks, no matter how brilliantly these engagements are described. It was also saddening that the mandatory nymphomaniac is odd for root vegetables; since Kennedy is so very attuned to human oddity, might she not have made it less sniggeringly predictable? One more bedroom cavil: it’s a pity that the pretty people have a so much better time.
The strengths of Everything You Need, nonetheless, are formidable. Kennedy is very young. She has kept her head. She has set herself a task not only technically gargantuan – the telling of a long story through real time – but also, I would guess, emotionally harrowing, addressing preoccupations that are to her, clearly, of the profoundest moment. Her reward should be the certainty that she is now producing, with apparent ease, beautiful descriptive writing of the highest order on every page. She has also created authentic characters, about whom the reader cares. Her burial of great themes within a compelling story indicates tact and intelligence beyond those of several winners of the prize about which she is so tellingly, glancingly, and correctly disparaging, and for which she richly deserves to be shortlisted.
Truth, love, loss, redemption, jokes and a bullseye way with the mot juste make this a distinguished novel, and its flaws somehow attach one to it more. Its consistent felicities and irresistible story are heightened by two further achievements: a relationship between two men, Nathan and his publisher, that is most affecting; and a breathtaking moment of banal betrayal, which comes towards the very end and alters everything – and how we mind.