A. L. Kennedy’s Blue Book requires concentration and patience. With so many strange tangents, the story shifts dramatically and often, so that you may think you are reading the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, if you persist, you will be rewarded.
Three characters drive the action: Beth and Derek, who are on a week-long ocean cruise, and Arthur, whom they supposedly meet for the first time in the queue to board the ship. Kennedy soon reveals that Arthur and Beth are old acquaintances and sometime lovers, with Derek unaware of a rival onboard. Beth and Arthur worked together as a theatrical psychic team, using numbers to communicate stage cues to each other; knowing this before you begin to read may help.
As Derek languishes in his cabin with seasickness, prolonged by Beth’s scuttling his seasick pills to keep him there, Arthur disappears into his suite on the concierge level. Beth splits her time between Derek in the stifling sick room cabin, and Arthur with his complimentary butler, with a few forays to the buffet in between. Although this may sound like a Marx Brothers farce, the humor is subtle and the overwhelming emotional baggage they have all carried on board floats up.
Kennedy’s wry humor reveals the characters’ innermost thoughts with her stand-up comedy timing.
“…you don’t want to get married, not you – marriage, that’s an institution – since when did you want to spend life in an institution?”
and she addresses the reader with off stage soliloquies that draw the reader in as a fellow conspirator. When Kennedy’s unreliable narrator digresses from the plot in the middle of the book to address “you,” the reader, I wondered, as you may – how did she know that about me? Like reading a horoscope, each reader can be sure a part of the message was meant for him or her, and confirms how Beth and Arthur could control an audience with their participants’ expectations – “…we live in stories…” The narrator also subtly offers hints to the emotional journey that the main characters are experiencing, that only makes sense at the end, when Kennedy neatly brings all the mysterious plot lines together – as well as explaining the title – with yet another surprise.
When interviewed by John Williams for The New York Times – A Couple At Sea: A. L. Kennedy Talks About the Blue Book – Kennedy defined the plot:
Two people decide to trust each other enough — and themselves enough — to love each other properly and be honest and to use all of themselves to be with each other. That’s the interior plot. The exterior plot is: “There are three people on a boat, one woman, two men — go figure.”
Despite my initial confusion, I kept reading and connected to Kennedy’s philosophical quirks as well as the work of keeping all the plot lines in my head. Her ending was satisfying. If you decide to read this book, find a quiet place to focus on it, with no distractions – maybe an ocean cruise.