Jon Sigurdsson, a senior civil servant in Whitehall, begins the day in which this long novel takes place, trying to save a fledgling blackbird.
It is a summer’s morning, shortly before seven, and he is attempting to disentangle it from the netting in his ex-wife’s garden. Trying to keep the little bird calm is almost as difficult as trying to compose himself at the prospect of what lies ahead, dealing with the alligators who run the government, to whom he must answer.
This opening scene is pleasingly chaotic in AL Kennedy’s inimitable way, as she throws her own netting over a situation, and entwines what is done and said simultaneously with what is being thought. The picture of a trembling bird in Jon’s hand is a cameo of vulnerability, hinting at the concept around which this novel revolves: the human heart, how easily it comes to harm, and how hard it flutters when frightened or hopeful.
Seen through the thoughts and experiences of two troubled, anxious individuals, Serious Sweet is on one level a very simple book. It is a romance, an exercise in the perennial preoccupation of novelists down the ages, as they attempt to bring together two lovers whose paths seem fated not to cross. This will-they, won’t-they is the outline around which the story is structured, across a span of 24 eventful hours. And as with watching Andy Murray winning a Wimbledon match in replay only after knowing the result, even though the reader is in little doubt that Jon and his new friend Meg will inevitably be allowed to connect, it is still an excruciatingly nail-biting read.
In part this is because of Kennedy’s playful, diabolical plotting, throwing everything she can muster in the couple’s way to prevent them meeting. In part, though, it is the result of the author’s style, which is never to approach a subject directly if she can take a detour around the milky way first.
‘Emotions,’ thinks Jon, ‘were like pine needles in your carpet – you’d think they were cleared and then another would work its way up and sting you, then another.’ Serious Sweet is prickling with feelings, a pincushion of pain, regret, torment, fear and self-loathing. The reasons for 59-year-old Jon’s self-doubt and angst only gradually emerge, dropped into the mix with great restraint and understatement, like a teetotaller adding brandy to a Christmas pudding. A public school upbringing, an unloving mother, and a faithless wife who makes him the butt of mockery among Westminster’s panjandrums are the bare bones of his affliction. It could almost be a portrait of John le Carré’s George Smiley, except that Smiley had nerves so steely they could hold up the Forth Road Bridge. Jon, on the other hand, is in a constant lather that he will be found out for his professional misdemeanours which, we discover, are very serious indeed.
Meg, however, can outdo Jon tenfold for worrying. We meet her as she is undergoing a gynaecological examination, a scene that is difficult to read, less for its medical details and more for this middle-aged woman’s distress at the memories the procedure evokes. ‘There’s the shape of him in me,’ she thinks, in italic, which is the way Kennedy’s inner dialogues are presented. The text then reverts to roman type. ‘You would rather not be reminded that you have gone on and lived – not lived wonderfully, but still lived.’ An alcoholic, and a survivor who has reached the two-year anniversary of sobriety, Meg is a bankrupted accountant who works part-time in an animal sanctuary. The significance of taking a job in such a place does not escape her. Like Jon, she is painfully, acutely self-conscious and aware. Though reminiscent of the narrator of Paradise, who is also a self-abasing alcoholic, Meg feels less complete than Hannah, and less engaging than Jon, her story somewhat in shadow to his.
Quite how someone like her met a man in the upper echelons of the ruling elite is easily, if eccentrically explained. Jon conducts a letter-writing service for lonely, unloved women in which he writes adulatory missives, with the merest undertow of eroticism. This is not for readers of Fifty Shades of Grey. More, perhaps, for fans of Anita Brookner and Jane Austen. Meg is one who answered his small ad, and was so touched by what he wrote that she loitered at his PO Box address to meet him. So far, they have had only a couple of bumbling, awkward encounters, but their attraction was obvious. As was their terror of being or inflicting hurt. On the day in which Serious Sweet takes place, they have a rendezvous for dinner, an occasion fraught with possibility, and hope.
Kennedy is a past master of the ceaseless chatter of the unstill mind. Few writers can match her in evoking the need for love, usually in women, who have been emotionally traumatised. That queasy compulsion to seek affection, despite knowing it could lead to further psychological damage, is pungently and disturbingly captured in works such as So I Am Glad, Paradise, and many of her short stories, which portray a haunting apprehension of incompleteness and desire, self-harm and loss.
For the first 150 pages, Kennedy’s magic works well. There is great charm and wit in the way she depicts her characters’ worlds, and her perceptions of modern society. Jon’s job allows her to reflect sardonically and frequently on the way Britain is run, and by whom: ‘I may be ageing,’ he thinks, contemplating his political masters, ‘but it seems the new intake is each time not only younger, but more ignorant and happier and more steadfast about its ignorance.’
He is also well aware of class and race distinctions. A Scot by birth and upbringing, he explains to Meg why he does not speak with a Scottish accent: ‘It was removed – the sound. Fashionable procedure. Like docking a dog’s tail… No, it was my choice. I wanted to prosper and back then an accent adjustment helped. Still would, I imagine.’
Ricocheting between Jon and Meg’s current situation, and recollections of their past, Serious Sweet builds momentum in a hiccuping, neurotic fashion. It takes a few pages to adjust to the constant switch between what is thought and what is said, to jump between private and formal, inner and exterior. Quickly one manages it, the rhythm almost hypnotic. But for this reader, quite suddenly it was too much. It took only a sentence or two to ruin the spell. Facing a situation at work he would rather avoid, Jon reflects: ‘He would also have requested a dispensation from being inside today’s early afternoon. This exact present moment, he would have liked to keep strictly at bay.’ The clumsiness of that paragraph comes as a shock, and thereafter it is hard to avoid noticing that Kennedy’s writing is becoming over-lush, over-wrought and unnecessarily demanding.
You could say Kennedy is wired the same way as her heroine, who comments, ‘You see and see and see and you can’t stop…’ Meg has few filters to keep out the clamour of the world, and Kennedy, you sense, is equally assailed by everything she sees, hears, and smells. It makes for intensely vivid writing, and a portrait of London that is simultaneously awed, affectionate and wary. It also requires an effort from readers that is not entirely rewarded. As Jon’s office and home life collide, keeping him from his appointment with Meg and leaving her prey to doubts, it becomes increasingly laborious to follow their incessant wash of feelings. Just as their voices do not seem in any way differentiated, nor is their outlook. In this, Kennedy might be signalling that they are soul mates. But when Jon informs his ghastly Minister Harry Chalice (as in poisoned, one assumes) that he cannot ever bring himself to use the c-word – ‘given that it implies there is something essentially wrong about part of a woman’s body’ – not only is it prosy, but also contrived. Could it be wishful thinking, reminding readers that for all his hang-ups and stuttering inability at times to get out a sentence when in Meg’s company, he is a most contemporary romantic hero, a serious catch?
By contrast, the other males in the plot are caricatures. Chalice talks like a James Bond villain: ‘We’d like you to check his hairy palms, Jon… Just lately he’s walking around like a man with a platinum knob.’ The individual he is referring to is Milner, a tabloid journalist, who is no less of a stereotype. Meeting Jon, he describes the clientele in a pub they’re about to enter: ‘Well, there are two blokes in tonight who stand next to Prince Whatever sometimes and who play that game with the funny-shaped ball… Ruggah buggahs… And there’s that woman who didn’t win the telly baking competition this year… or last year… Fame ain’t what it fuckin’ used to be.’ Chalice and Milner’s exaggerated masculinity and aggression, their unrepentant lack of morality, scruples or taste are perhaps being filtered through Jon’s jaundiced eyes, but the effect is unconvincing and cartoonish.
Apart from these cardboard cut-outs, Kennedy’s humour is usually of the rapier kind, lancing pomposity or hypocrisy with one-liners and savagely droll putdowns. Perhaps her role as stand-up comedian is colouring her writing; if so, it is welcome. There are even more amusing asides here than in much of her earlier work, and the parodic figures from Whitehall and Fleet Street may be part of the sardonic comedy, stooges against which the sensitivity of her broken protagonists stand in subtle relief.
Yet there is a rawness about Jon and Meg that makes their romantic tango at times almost unbearable to observe. In their escalating anxiety, each going a rung higher than the other with every passing chapter, they appear to turn nervousness and introspection into a competitive sport.
One has every reason to fear for them as a couple, and for their future. If I were a relationship counsellor, I would caution against them taking things further, and pray that they do not meet for dinner. Early in this state of the world novel, however, Kennedy stakes out her new, upbeat territory when Meg observes, ‘there is not enough compassion in the world’. In a series of seemingly random standalone passages, Kennedy showcases moments of kindness and beauty in the mist of the city: strangers helping a stranded autistic woman catch a train; a man on the underground with an upturned cap at his side who is given money by a concerned passer-by. Since the tone of this novel is by far her most optimistic and tender, readers are drawn onwards, deeper into Jon and Meg’s love story. Rightly or wrongly, one is led to anticipate that things will work out. Twenty-five years and seventeen books into her career, Serious Sweet could be called Kennedy’s debut in hope and trust.