Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, Serious Sweet is a ‘novel of our times.’ Taking place over a twenty four hour period in London, we follow two main characters around the city.
Jon is divorced, almost sixty and contemplating retirement from his civil servant job. Having recently escaped from an unhappy marriage in which it seems his wife had many sexual encounters with many men known to both of them, potentially to punish Jon for his shortcomings, he is desperate for any form of love. His solution is to offer his services as a writer of letters. For a small fee he writes letters to lonely women, unbothered whether they choose to reply or not. One of those women turns out to be Meg, a bankrupt former accountant and sober alcoholic in her mid forties. She tracks down Jon’s PO box and basically stakes it out until she finds him out.
There is a third character in this novel: London. The city features most heavily in this book, the two protagonists travelling extensively west, south, central, as Kennedy frustrates their plans. Between the action are posted observations of city life: a busker singing for a little boy; a young tired couple showing their newborn daughter off to strangers in a café; a sleeping man on a Northern Line train. I found these vignettes touching and evocative.
The style of the novel is interesting in that not only do we follow both Jon and Meg alternately, but both are presented in both third and first person. This could be confusing, but somehow having the rather rambling ‘I’ sections italicised makes it easier to read:
‘But the hotel hadn’t really been his problem – not his pressing problem – the fight he started with his daughter on the plane had troubled him more. That’s what stole his sleep.
It was so plainly imbecilic as a course of action: get your only child alone and immediately criticise her boyfriend. No, not immediately. I mentioned that that her shoes were great and that she looked well and wouldn’t this be fun and that we didn’t often get the chance. Then I started in with the ill-advised comments. Just after we were allowed to unfasten out seatbelts. Idiot.’
What slows the story down is the amount of flashbacks that have to be employed to help us understand these two people. The section above is taken from Jon’s recollection of a mini break to Berlin with his adult daughter, and there are many of these, telling the reader how Jon and Meg came to this point. In a novel that takes place in one day, this may have been necessary to some extent, but I felt that some of this was surplus to requirements. I didn’t care about Jon’s unhappy childhood enough to want to read paragraphs on his mother’s post natal depression for example. I wanted more immediacy, more ‘in the moment’ thought to stop my mind from drifting away from the words on the page.
What is clear is that this is a book written by an incredibly accomplished writer. I have never read A.L Kennedy before but I would seek her out again. There is something comforting in her prose, sometimes lightly humorous, often poignant, that makes this book an easy read while remaining thought-provoking.