There is a lot of alcohol in Scottish fiction, as there is in Scottish fact. Often this becomes an easy stereotype used to denote not only nationality but also social status. There is a belief that alcohol abuse is one of the boxes to tick in the ‘urban, gritty, working class’ novel, but this doesn’t stand up toScotland’s literary, or societal, reality. In fact the most interesting takes on alcoholism are arguably those written with middle-class protagonists. Among the best are George Friel’s ‘Mr Alfred M.A.’, Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’, Alasdair Gray’s ‘Janine 1982’ and A.L. Kennedy’s 2004 novel, ‘Paradise’. 

‘Paradise’ is the story of Hannah Luckcraft, a woman who wakes up in a room with no idea of where she is and how she got there. There are echoes of the beginning of James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late’, where Sammy Samuels wakes up blind. Hannah can see, but what she sees makes little sense to her. What follows is a breathtaking depiction of one woman’s alcoholism and how she lives with it, and Kennedy’s use of narrative and voice is masterful as moments of clarity, in thought and speech, are mixed with self loathing before slipping into prose with softer edges as drink once more takes hold.

It is unusual to have a female alcoholic as the lead character, and ‘Paradise’ is as honest an account of illness as Janice Galloway’s ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’. The reader has to piece together the character of Hannah Luckcraft as she does so herself, trying to make sense of her conscious and unconscious state(s) of mind. There is the belief that ‘some drink to remember, some drink to forget’, but some drink because it becomes too hard not to. There are passages that hint at the reasons that Hannah became dependant:

“And I do feel remorse for every sin. Inside, I am mostly built out of remorse, but no one can manage the weight of that, not constantly. It has to be put away, sent out of mind, because anything else would be stifling, perhaps suicidal.”

At times ‘Paradise’ is a love letter to alcohol. Kennedy, who I believe doesn’t partake, has managed to capture how drinkers can fetishise their tipple of choice. How about this for a description of a bottle of Bushmills: “the rounded corners and the dapper weight and the elegant cut of the label … a long, slim doorway to somewhere else”. Hannah does not want, or need, your sympathy. This is an exploration of an individual’s life, but, as with the famous ‘Seinfeld rule’, there’s ‘no hugging and no learning’. Kennedy has not written ‘Paradise’ as a warning, at least not as I read it, but as an examination of a life lived in a way which society has deemed unacceptable.

‘Paradise’ has a black humour at its heart, and I can’t think of another writer who has such a lyrical way with irony and disdain. Some of her prose really is an iron fist in a velvet glove and while it is never over the top, it is always assured. With Kennedy’s turn of phrase, Hannah becomes a character that you are drawn to. She is witty, knowledgeable and self deprecating. As the novel approaches its end it begins to move at an incredible pace, and it becomes almost fantasy as for Hannah, and the reader, places and people rush by as she searches for her ‘Paradise’, a place which always seems out of reach no matter how fast she chases after it. Kennedy gives no easy answers by the end, and after the struggle of Hannah’s life it would have been overly neat, and even trite, if she had.

Discussing Kennedy’s work means I have the excuse to play this. It’s ‘Kennedy’ by The Wedding Present, as good today as they always were:

A.L. Kennedy is such a consistently good writer that I think she sometimes gets taken for granted, and I don’t only mean her fiction. Her journalism, and non-fiction, are also impressive. I would particularly draw your attention to her slim volume ‘On Bullfighting’ which is a beautifully written and challenging view on this curious Spanish tradition. What she has proven with ‘Paradise’ is that just because a topic is seen to be stereotypical, or one-dimensional, this doesn’t mean that in the hands of the great writers, and I think Kennedy is one, we can’t take something new, artistic, and insightful from them. Alcohol andScotlandmay appear to some to have been done to death, but this novel proves that thought to be incorrect.

Statistics say that a third of alcoholics are women, but you wouldn’t know that by reading recent fiction. Hannah Luckraft’s story should be read as it will give readers a greater understanding of the complexity of some people’s relationship with drink. If you have never been witness to such a relationship, and want to know how realistic ‘Paradise’ is, then you could compare it to Caroline Knapp’s real life memoir of her alcoholism ‘Drink: A Love Story’, but Kennedy’s is the better book. It is humorous, dark, distracting, sensual, sad, but never sentimental, and more entertaining than you have any right to expect. It always comes back to the writer, and few can match A.L. Kennedy when she is at her best.

In recent conversations about contemporary Scottish literature there has been the claim that it is becoming one dimensional and formulaic. If you have been reading this column for the last couple of years I hope you’ll agree with me that this is blatant nonsense. Look at the list of the next five novels that will feature in ‘Indelible Ink’. These are five very different writers who are all writing today. Contemporary writers, crossing gender, age, class, style and place. This is the state of contemporary Scottish literature, vibrant and diverse, and to believe otherwise, well, you’re just not looking hard enough.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: Two things drew me to Alice Thompson’s novel ‘The Existential Detective’. First it was recommended by Ali Smith, which will do for me, and I am always drawn to any discussion of existentialism. The novel is a melancholic mystery which begins as a fairly straightforward detective novel but quickly becomes about personal tragedy and familial deceit.

Thompson has a complete understanding not only of the detective genre, but also of a wider literary tradition. There are references to Blake, The Magic Flute, James Hogg and Stevenson, and although set inEdinburgh’s Portobello it has the feel of a landscape where the odd and off-kilter are everyday; more Twin Peaks than Firth of Forth.

  1. Alice Thompson The Existential Detective (Nov)
  2. Agnes Owens Bad Attitudes (Dec)
  3. Rodge Glass No Fireworks (Jan)
  4. Toni Davidson Scar Culture (Feb)
  5. John Burnside The Devil’s Footprints (Mar)