UK Literary Big Guns Are Thundering on this Side of the Atlantic

Jean Charbonneau

Books Reviewed: Paradise by A. L. Kennedy. Knopf, 304 pp.; Saturday by Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese. 304 pp.; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf, 288 pp.

Among the many notable mainstream novels that have come out so far this year (William T. Vollman's Europe Central, Francine Prose's A Changed Man, Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis, Danielle Steele's Impossible are some of them), three stand out as they happen to be the product of some of the best writers from the United Kingdom: A.L. Kennedy, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

My favorite is 39 year-old Scottish novelist and short story writer A.L. (Alison Louise) Kennedy's powerful new novel Paradise. Hannah Luckraft, the main character, is a single woman in her mid-thirties.  She's smart, candid, attractive and very, very messed up: "I am delicate and the world is impossibly wrong, is unthinkable and I am not forewarned, forearmed, equipped.  I cannot manage.  If there was something useful I could do, I would--but there isn't.  So I drink."

Does she ever, throughout the novel.  She knows full well that the last thing she needs is alcohol, and yet there's nothing in this world she wants more than a drink.  She drinks in the morning, on the job, alone, with friends, with strangers in pubs.  She drinks wine and beer and hard liquor; in a pinch she'll guzzle a bottle of cough medicine just to get a high.  Everything she experiences is tinted (and distorted) by her alcohol intake. 

The novel is narrated by Hannah.  She's brutally honest about herself, her shortcomings and failures, the disruptive, often catastrophic toll her drinking takes on her relationships.

In the course of the story she finds her soul mate of sorts.  Robert (a dentist who despises his profession) and Hannah love to get smashed together, though bitterness and anger soon take over the original euphoria.  Unsurprisingly, they are each other's worst enemies, and both endure the inequities and disasters associated with substance abuse.  Still, to the very end of the story Robert remains Hannah's impossible hope for both recovery and redemption.

Paradise is a tough novel, raw and at times graphic.  It certainly isn't your typical plot-driven page-turner, but rather the unraveling of a complicated and disturbed character, layer after layer.  At times the novel is immensely sad, though not devoid of a certain amount of humor, all dark.  It contains many moments of true and convincing drama, while never being maudlin.

Serious literature does not have to equate a dry, taxing reading experience.  Quite the opposite.  Paradise has of what are considered the hallmarks of serious literature, or "literary fiction": an intricate plot, terrific prose, universal themes, complex characters.  And yet, though at times demanding, the novel is a thrill to read.

The title is bitterly ironic, as Hannah's life is anything but paradisiacal.  "Paradise" is a candid book about the devastating hold alcohol has over the alcoholic, and Hannah is a tragic character, overwhelmed by her demons and incapable of living a peaceful or even balanced existence.

Stories about drunks are familiar--the blackouts, the loss of dignity, the crippling hangovers, the sleazy sexual encounters, the self-loathing.  What makes "Paradise" a remarkable novel is the quality of the prose and the profound humanity that Kennedy injects in her characters, Hannah above all.

One of the publishing world's big events so far this year has been the release of Ian McEwan's Saturday.  Mr. McEwan, while touring the US, appeared on tons of shows, both on television (from "Charlie Rose" to "The Today Show") and radio (NPR's "Fresh Air").  The novel was reviewed (and generally showered with accolades) in every major newspapers in North America.  I usually hate to praise novels that are so hyped-up, but there's no two ways about it: "Saturday" is terrific.

The opening scene shows a man looking out his bedroom window in the middle of the night to spot a plane on fire heading for Heathrow Airport.  Terrorism is the first thing that comes to the man's mind (as well as the reader's).  That's because, "Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed."

Harboring these thoughts is Henry Perowne, a 48-year old reputed brain surgeon.  Henry has two talented grownup children, he drives a deluxe Mercedes, lives in a sumptuous London house, and is still deeply in love with his wife after more than two decades of marriage.  Life is good.

And yet, Henry can't shake a lingering feeling of unease, much of it seemingly the result of the post-9/11 anxiety-ridden zeitgeist.

The novel is set on February 15, 2003, 18 months after the terrorist attacks on US soil and in the charged period leading to the invasion of Iraq.  On that Saturday, massive anti-war demonstrations are held in the streets of London.

Henry's view of the situation is conflicted--he's anything but gung-ho about sending troops in action, but one of his patients is an Iraqi who suffered greatly at the hand of Saddam and his henchmen.  "Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets," Henry muses.  "If they think--and they could be right--that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view."

The entire story takes place in the course of a single day--with a few flashbacks sprinkled here and there--and everything is seen from Henry's perspective, a gutsy and ambitious endeavor as it could have made for a claustrophobic book.  But McEwan pulls it off with a mixture of plot twists and interesting thoughts.  Henry is a highly cerebral man, a neurosurgeon who sees the world through that prism, often using technical and scientific language.  It makes for a different and often captivating narrator.

Fairly soon into the novel, the reader begins to suspect that something big is going to happen, some event(s) that will shatter the quietude of Henry's day.  McEwan is very apt at slowly, subtly building suspense by creating an atmosphere of doom early in the story.

And harrowing moments do take place, as when Henry is confronted with street thugs.  In previous books, such as "The Innocent" (1990), McEwan has successfully combined smart writing and shocking violence, and at times his latest effort is reminiscent of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, the masterpiece of Brit violence fiction.

Many consider Ian McEwan to be the best novelist in the English language today.  What is certain is he is at the top of his game, and it is hard to think of any writer having produced this past decade a better trio of novels than "Amsterdam" (the 1999 Booker Prize recipient), "Atonement" (one of those rare novels that won near-unanimous praise by critics and was an international best-seller to boot) and, now, "Saturday."

Speaking of literary stars, Kazuo Ishiguro (born in Japan, his parents moved to England when he was 5) isn't exactly an obscure novelist.  His extraordinary "The Remains of the Day" established him as one of England's most celebrated writers.  It didn't hurt that the movie adaptation of the novel (starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and the late Christopher Reeve) was an international hit.

A lot is going on in Ishiguro's sixth and latest novel Never Let Me Go: scientific endeavors gone awry, dehumanization, twisted medical ethics, betrayal, self-abnegation leading to self-destruction.

The main character is Kathy H., a 31-year old "carer."  Two of the "donors" she has been looking after are Tommy and Ruth.  All three were friends while attending Hailsham, some sort of elite school/orphanage situated in rural England, away from civilization.  Every Hailsham student was born and raised to become both a "carer" as well as a "donor."

Mysterious?  That was exactly Ishiguro's intent.

The novel covers three distinct stages of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's lives and development, both as individuals and obligatory participants in an extraordinary medical scheme doomed to failure.

The first part is set in Hailsham, where an odd and at times stifling atmosphere prevails, and the children are raised by "guardians."  The near-mythical figure of Madame shows up once in a while to take away the children's best works of art, adding to the creepy aura of the place.  Ishiguro is very good at creating a child's world:  the fantasies, the fears, the rivalries, the crude politics, the dreams.

The second part takes place in the Cottages.  There the students (now teenagers) have little to do except read and socialize, and they behave in a most civilized manner even with very little supervision from adults.  The students remain there until one by one they are called away to be "trained."

Soon it will be Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's turn to fulfill the tragic fate that was devised for them, in what is the last section of the novel.

Telling the story is Kathy, who is, as in the case of all Ishiguro's novels, an unreliable narrator.  She is often confused about what her place in the world is supposed to be and how to interpret the main events of her existence. 

The book is presented like a casual account of Kathy's life, and the narrative is filled with anecdotes about authority, sex, friendship, creativity, growing up.  Unfortunately, some of them are borderline tedious.

The characters, Kathy included, are not special or particularly interesting, though their situation is.  What is puzzling all along is that even as adults, they accept the status quo, even while knowing that it is terribly detrimental to their health and will lead to their demise.

There is a powerful turn of events toward the end, when a woman from the friends' past materializes like a ghost and provides them with the answers they had been longing for concerning themselves and their fate.  Kathy and the others, it turns out, are "simply pawns in a game," a very sick game.

From the get go the story is veiled in mystery and clues are dropped here and there about what is really going on, in a slow build-up of tension.  Eventually the pieces of the puzzle come together and the nightmarish picture becomes clear.  Suffice to say, it is "a harsh, cruel world" that Ishiguro has created.

Part mystery, part sci-fi, his Never Let Me Go has joined in the long tradition of British dystopian novels, from Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New Word" to George Orwell’s "1984" to, recently, Hanif Kureishi's "The Body."

The ravages of alcoholism, fear of terrorism, human cloning: three resolutely contemporary themes in novels authored by a trio of exceptionally talented British writers.

Jean Charbonneau

Jean Charbonneau is In Posse Review's editor-in-chief. His book reviews have appeared in a variety of newspapers and literary magazines.