20 October 2016

Book Review: Serious Sweet by AL Kennedy

Ahead of the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize next week, I'm posting reviews of two of the books that I've enjoyed from the longlist. This second review is for AL Kennedy's Serious Sweet, which was published in May by Jonathan Cape/Penguin Random House. I received a review copy of the novel, which was on the Booker longlist, via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

AL Kennedy’s novel Serious Sweet unfolds over the course of 24 hours in the lives of Meg, a bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, and Jon, a senior civil servant still reeling from his divorce and on the brink of taking an action that risks his career for his principles. They meet because Jon, in an effort to ward off loneliness, has started a letter-writing service whereby he, using a pseudonym, writes letters to lonely women. He and Meg forge an unexpected connection, however, sensing that underneath their superficially opposing worlds, they have something in common.

It is as much a novel about city life, particularly in London, as it is about loneliness and human connection. The events of the day are peppered with vignettes of London life — the view from Telegraph Hill, in south London, where Meg lives; interactions with passive-aggressive taxi drivers; unremarkable Tube journeys — that give the novel a real energy and sense of motion, even though not very much happens. It’s a fun book to read when you’re in London: I was sitting on the 453 bus just as I was reading a scene that featured it, and the Charing Cross Road, London Bridge and South Ken are among the other locations that appear. 

In the wrong hands, this could easily slip into tedious mundanity but Kennedy has a sharp eye and her keen observations elevate her prose into something almost poetic. Although we only get a 24-hour snapshot into the lives of Meg and Jon, more of their back stories is revealed through flashbacks and reveries. The central tension of whether they will indeed be able to meet up on this particular day and, more broadly, whether they have a future together, is a surprisingly suspenseful one, in part because Kennedy’s two protagonists are, while far from perfect, utterly relatable and sympathetic.

You wouldn't call Serious Sweet a page-turner, but it is both serious and sweet, as well as warm, rich and intricate.

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