Amanda's Circus

I’ve just finished – The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy


This is a weird book, weird and somehow I want to kiss it. Strange. I admit I’m a fan of weird books – I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes which is exhumed from Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles and is,  I suppose, a piece of sculpture as well as a book, virtually impossible to read though. Not that The Blue Book is anything like that.

My copy is a lovely hardback in deep, deep royal blue with golden lettering and on the cover is the palm of a hand engraved in gold and enclosed in a circle. All three outer edges of the book have also been coloured deep blue. It’s like a blue box. Also adding to its weirdness is the fact that I purchased it in Poundland, so in a way, for me, it is a special found gift. It is lovely. And, for your information, I haven’t quite finished reading it as I write this. I’ll add a paragraph when I’ve completely finished. So I’m writing here without the full knowledge because I want to see how my reaction changes. After all it is 373 pages of book, not just an end.

The Blue Book

At the start, one is addressed by a narrator or Kennedy as she talks about ‘your book’. Of course, I suppose it could be some other mysterious ‘you’, but since I’m holding ‘the book’ I feel it’s me she is addressing and I’m willing to play the game, however creepy it feels.  I haven’t looked at the start since I read it for the first time, but yet I wrote at the top of this post that I want to kiss it which I feel sort of odd about (I’ve never felt that before and you’re probably thinking I’m a bit peculiar and you wouldn’t be far off the mark there, obviously) but I decided to keep it in because it’s true, not in a particularly passionate way, more of a hug and a peck, but still true. I thought I’d look at the beginning of the book for a quote about how ‘your book’ is mentioned by the narrator, whether that’s Kennedy or Arthur (sometimes called Art in the book which is  interesting) and I’m truly shocked to see on the first page, a couple of paragraphs down:

‘And quite naturally, you face it (your book). Your eyes, your lips are turned towards it – all that paleness, all those marks – and you are so close here that if it were a person you might kiss. That might be unavoidable.’

Intense. Shocking, even. I seem to have established some sort of relationship with this book. I have a physical reaction to it. I don’t remember spending too much time thinking about the passage at the time, but somehow I’ve been manipulated into writing that first sentence. Or that’s how it seems to me.

wrapped up

Another chapter begins:

‘Your book doesn’t understand belief, it can only tell you what it sees: a hotel lounge with a duck egg and caramel carpet, fat chairs and the quiet of hospital waiting rooms’

Hmm, I expected more from my book, I’m a trifle disappointed. Also, I’m finding that my lovely book confuses me with its codes and tricks, and jumping page numbers. It might be laughing at me, tinkering with me. Perhaps it’s lying to me.


The story is about Elizabeth, Beth. Incidentally, Beth numbers are a sequence of infinite cardinal numbers named for the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The name switches from Elizabeth to Beth throughout the book. Anyway, Elizabeth, the daughter of a magician, is crossing the Atlantic with her dull boyfriend, Derek. It’s a rough crossing and Derek is ill most of the time. The liner is claustrophobic and filled with very old people who are precariously clinging to life. Elizabeth is running away from her past. But the past blows on board in the form of Arthur Lockwood, her ex-lover, and with whom she had been in partnership as a ‘fake’ medium.


Elizabeth’s voice is heard in long stream of consciousness passages in which Kennedy brings us into Elizabeth’s world of corruption, self-disgust, the terror of falling in love and the isolation of sex. It’s bleak. We are wrapped in numeric codes, tricks and subjected to intimate ‘readings’ of people. Occasionally the page numbers at the top of the page jump randomly. I can’t pretend to understand the numeric tricks but as with the wealth of literary devices: 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person viewpoints, the italicised passages of stream of consciousness that feel as if someone is breathing in your face, the interior monologues, the relief of the present in normal print; as all this is being incorporated into the book, I, the ‘reader’, am prepared to go along with it. It’s fine. I can cope, just. But more unsettling is the voice of Arthur -Art. His skilful but fraudulent manipulation of fragile, desperate, wealthy women brings them solace but again he is haunted by a horror of himself, of life but I can’t hate him, he seems too vulnerable and crucially, he has become his art, he cannot be other than it. Kennedy’s observations are sharp, sometimes funny, the writing is fabulous, it’s a great story, intense, erotic, brilliant in so many ways, but it is bleak, unsettling, queasy, and not always an enjoyable read.


My rational brain wonders about the construction of this book. On one level we have a short story about a woman and two men on a cruise. Layered onto this we have the intense stream of consciousness inserts whispering in our ear. Both of these layers are alienating. Interspersed are the narratorial bits gently coaxing us in, coaching us in the possibilities of ‘your book’, intriguing us, tempting us, much more friendly in a creepy way. Interesting.

Now I’m off to read the end.

I’ve discovered that my lovely book lies to me. Yes, I’ve been tricked. I won’t spoil it but towards the end, Beth gives Arthur a book she has written for him:

‘And Beth tells him, ‘Read the end first. Please.’

In the next chapter the narrator tells us:

‘Blue books keep the privacies of trades and crafts and carry years of practices made perfect and they are cheats and tricks and shameful and denied.’

I don’t suggest you read the end first, no don’t do that, but the end of this book changes the rest of the book. Goodness gracious me. I recommend that you spend some time with this book. In fact, you may want to read it twice.

P.S. It’s six months since I finished reading ‘The Blue Book’ and I still think about it. Not all the time, obviously, but it pops into my head fairly frequently. It has somehow taken on the form of an ocean-going liner, that’s how I view its shape as a novel. Big. Powerful. Momentous. Surging. Just thought you’d like to know that.




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About writing, trickery and a little music