Review of the novel Paradise
by A. L. Kennedy
To write about being drunk is not as easy as it is to pour a drink in the first place.
The exaggerations of perception, the distortion of intellect, the blackouts, require a scrupulous respect for the realities of time, place, and the search for lost keys. But sobriety—an alcoholic’s sobriety, suffering the emotional bruises caused by simple consciousness—is even more challenging to the aspiring teller of the truth.
The novel Paradise by A. L. Kennedy is a cruel and wonderful book. I’ve read it three times over recent years.
Our protagonist Hannah Luckcraft lives in Scotland, a land of pubs and likable eccentrics, and she has more than a drinking problem. She has a problem getting her hands on enough alcohol to make waking up worth the pain. She has a job selling cardboard boxes to farmers so they can market their crops, and this occupation offers her the ability to continue to drink because it provides her with money, but at the same time makes her aware that she could be doing something better with her days.
With her life, I mean. She could be doing something better with her life, but will she, really? Can she? This brutal novel also tells the story of a love affair between Hannah and Robert Gardner, a likable married man who understands Hannah more than anyone else. What brings them together is the joy of drinking, and the fear of life without booze.
The novel involves two visits to a rehab spa in Canada and a drunken exploration of London that is one of the most fluidly clever pieces of writing I have encountered. This impressive work of fiction is entertaining, as well as troubling, and every sulky kid and smirking stranger rings true. When Hannah has yet another squalid fling with a virtual nobody, when she wheels the chair of a frail and half paralyzed stranger with ugly results, the reader is spared nothing.
There are grand novels about substance abuse—a very awkward phrase. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does for LSD what mezcal does for Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Both novels explore, exploit, even celebrate the giddy, awful influence of chemicals on both the psyche and the body.
And readers often actually like playing the voyeur in a character’s drunken, stoned, mind-blown, life-wrecking hallucinations. But Kennedy’s tale is exceptionally well written, and both realistic and engaging. Yes, reading it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but we are left with the author’s intelligent conscience. This is a cruel story, and the novelist knows it.
We watch Hannah struggle and fail to be decent to parents, to her brother, even to her lover’s estranged wife, even as we begin not to begrudge her the next tequila, gin, whiskey, Cointreau and milk, cough syrup, anything to get her moving from one lightless room to another. We believe in her, deeply, and we are pulled along by her intelligence.
Why is this book worth reading? Because it’s funny, laid down in smart prose that feels like the absolute truth.
Is there really such a thing as an antiwar novel? Or does even the harshest depiction of battle make it seem, even to a peaceful reader, just a little, tiny bit fascinating?
This must certainly be an anti-drinking novel. There is no question that this novel strips the glamor entirely away from liquor. But what makes this story powerful is the open-eyed observation of sobriety, the grind of another night spent filling up on water or orange juice for a scalded soul that would rather drink gin.