A. L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book is probably one of the most handsomely presented novels that I own. Hardbacked with gold lettering, no dust jacket and the page edges coloured blue to match the cover, it is a very fine thing indeed, old-fashioned and reminiscent of a Victorian-era book on palmistry. It suggests a tome of mysteries lies within. If you were to judge the book solely on its cover (which we are told repeatedly not to do of course), then this would undoubtedly be one of my favourite books. I was tempted to buy it after seeing its beautiful presentation, and convinced after hearing a talk by the author, who shared the stage on this occasion with Britain’s only Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology, Richard Wiseman, a noted debunker of paranormal phenomenon. The reason why should become apparent shortly.
The Blue Book tells the story of Beth, a woman on the cusp of middle age who starts the story in a queue to board a luxury liner for a trip to New York with her adequate boyfriend Derek. As the queue shuffles imperceptibly forward, they are approached by an older man called Arthur, who tries to entertain them in their wait with magic tricks. Derek pretends not to notice, while Beth feel mildly embarrassed; we get the impression that this is going to be a rough crossing in more ways than one. As the cruise progresses, Derek – who quite possibly was planning to use the occasion to propose to Beth – falls ill with terrible seasickness and retreats to his cabin for days. Left to her own devices, Beth explores the ship and finds herself meeting with Arthur again. This meeting is perhaps no coincidence, and through regular trips into Beth’s stream of consciousness, we find that these two apparent strangers have a long and chequered history as partners, both of the romantic and the professional kind. For Arthur is much more than a man who can do magic tricks to amuse bored cruise passengers. He is a highly successful fake medium (I could of course go off on a considerable tangent about whether there is such a thing as a real medium, but that is not the purpose of this review), and Beth was once his eager co-performer, playing to huddles of the needy in church halls and theatres across the country.
Ostensibly Beth left Arthur some years before the cruise due to her growing concerns at the way in which they earned their money, but Kennedy is not that straightforward. It is clear that everything is not quite as it seems, but the manner of the manipulation kept me guessing to the end. After all, if you are reading about people who deceive for a living, it is only fair to expect some deceit in their storytelling. There is a nice amount of riddling and games in the book to maintain interest.
“It did feel a bit like hard work in places, but I think that it was very much worth sticking to…”
Written in the second person, the characters in this book were kept at arm’s length throughout the story, and I found it quite difficult to get to know Beth, for all the time we as readers spend in her head. Arthur, on the other hand, was a very interesting character indeed. Kennedy does not give us clear heroes and villains; we can feel deeply sorry for Arthur because of his background, impressed by his dedication to learning people-reading skills and intrigued in the way that his uses these skills, but at the same time know that for all his posturing about helping the grieving move on and find closure, he is quite simply lying to people. Bereft parents and lonely widows may feel much consolation from speaking to Arthur, but what he tells them is patently not true – and he knows this. He knows this so much that in his later career Arthur only charges his wealthy clients in a bid to provide free services to poorer enquirers, and gives lavishly to charity in an apparent attempt to compensate for his lies. The extent to which this makes Arthur a bad man is entirely up to the reader to decide.
I found the writing in this book variable. In some places it was sharp and witty enough to raise a smile, in others it was quite beautiful and made me stop reading for a moment to appreciate it. However, some of the streams of consciousness went on for a bit too long, were a bit to philosophical and self-involved for my liking, and interrupted the flow of the good bits of the story. And this is a good story, albeit one that is sometimes hidden behind over-written sections of text. It is certainly one that was well researched – no less that Derren Brown advised Kennedy on the world of fake mediums, and the result is a portrayal of a seedy world of travelling psychics created in believable accuracy.
In the end I did enjoy The Blue Book, more and more so the further I went on with it. It did feel a bit like hard work in places, but I think that it was very much worth sticking to and the conclusion was quite satisfying. (That the book looks rather good on my bookshelves now I have finished it it’s a nice added bonus – I wish more publishers would produce their books with such care to aesthetics as this).
Recommended (but only to readers who can read 370 pages of second person prose without being put off by it).
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