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Hannah, the inebriate woman

by
04 July 2014

Anna Macham reads the novel Paradise by A. L. Kennedy

"THE landlady . . . disapproved of Julia's habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes; a bottle, no. That was the landlady's point of view." Julia Martin is the alcohol-befuddled heroine of Jean Rhys's 1930 novel After Leaving Mr Mackenzie - a novel that is in advance of its time in depicting the degradations of women exploited for, and exploiting, their sexuality.

Rhys was an alcoholic: she wrote in cheap hotels and drank alone, but her writing is courageous and honest, poised between hope and despair.

A sense of the disreputableness of female drinking is strong, too, in A. L. Kennedy's novel Paradise (2004). Hannah Luckraft, an alcoholic, is an outsider in a loud, violent, man's world: "And I do see this is how a man drinks and, therefore, inappropriate for me. I should have been at home behind my curtains with the methylated gin, the Tia Maria and Blue Nun."

Related in the first person, the novel reads like a spiritual autobiography with a Scottish Calvinist slant: Hannah is acutely aware that she is "sick to [her] soul", and that female drinking is sinful. Her interior monologue, which, like much in the novel, is sexually explicit, has the intimacy and intensity of a shameful memory. At the same time, like Rhys's novel, it is surprisingly funny - full of gallows humour that redeems some of the bleakness that might otherwise make it unbearable.

Kennedy's background Christianity has led her (pictured) to engage seriously with questions of faith, connecting spirituality with other vital themes such as intimacy, loneliness, guilt, and loss. Her novella Original Bliss (1998) focused on a woman who was so convinced of God's existence that she used to be able to feel him, but who has lost that visceral sense of communion. It explores the romance, tragedy, and redemption that follow.

Kennedy's personal faith has often found political expression in her non-fiction writing, especially her anti-war activism. But the spirituality of Paradise is more elusive, like its plot, and delights in satirical, violent paradox.

The brilliant first scene, which opens mid-thought ("And I apparently begin with being here. . .") could be anywhere. Coming round from a blackout in what turns out to be a hotel dining-room, Hannah describes her surroundings with no knowledge of who or where she is. Is this heaven or hell, prison or paradise? It is hard to know.

The novel contains possibilities for hope and hopelessness. Hannah has had an ordinary, loving childhood, and works "in cardboard", and yet "things with me are, in other ways, not right." Her true occupation is alcohol, which she tries - and fails - to give up.

The saddest irony is that she can find satisfaction only when drunk: her intimacy with her partner, Robert, a dentist, is founded on shared drunkenness; yet the consequences of her drinking - injury, responsibilities unfulfilled - intervene between her and happiness. Her unreliable voice slides from brooding intimacy and bright, funny imaginativeness, through lies, to dissolution and, finally, despair: "Hannah Luckraft=nothing".

As with Rhys, spiritual faith is linked with imagination and memory. A poignant moment, which precedes a terrible betrayal, is when Hannah, watching children perform in a church, remembers giving a reading at school: "I . . . stretched my spine . . . so I'd be tall enough to hold in the holiness I could feel pouring, rolling in. . . The complications of it and the melody and the meaning that I couldn't grip, except that it was so fine and shining and a comfort."

Thoughts of death, waiting "until I fall up into the burning absence that I am afraid is the heart of God", are both terrifying and hopeful; speaking of God's absence is to recall the possibility of presence.

The 14 Stations of the Cross, hinted at throughout, give the novel its 14-chapter structure. Kennedy has described the novel as "an exploration of secular martyrdom".

The Stations might suggest an ability to endure such despair and self-hurt. But a dispute between two of the pub regulars, Maurice and the Parson, about the number of Stations, calls into question whether the last two, which represent an unbroken move towards the resurrection, should be included: "How are you getting 12? You just take him up to Calvary and leave him? Anyone can die - it's what happens next that counts."

Like the Stations, the novel has two endings - one hellish, the other paradisaical (a hotel room with Robert and whisky) - but neither is more real than the other, and neither is lasting. Hannah knows that she is hardly a saviour, least of all of herself. Her wit is her saving grace.

The triumph of this disturbing, comi-tragic novel is that, while making no apology for any of them, Kennedy makes us feel for her characters the fierce tenderness that they are capable of showing each other - and for this she has our admiration.

The Revd Anna Macham is the Priest-in-Charge of St Philip's, Camberwell, in south London.

Paradise by A. L. Kennedy is published by Vintage Books at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10 - Use code CT834 ); 978-0-099-43349-1.

 

PARADISE - SOME QUESTIONS 

Hannah is unaware of her surroundings most of the time, but we have to rely on her as our narrator. How well does Kennedy strike the balance between making her speech articulate enough to be compelling, but incoherent enough to be convincing? 

What signals are there in the text of the Stations of the Cross, and what function do they serve in the novel?

Is the novel ultimately despairing, or hopeful?

Do you think that Hannah's sexual appetite is fuelled by her alcoholism? 

In chapter 2, Hannah attempts to help an elderly lady, but, instead, causes her to be hurt. Have you ever tried to help anyone, with unintended consequences? 

Why does the author reproduce the handwriting of Robert's note in chapter 5? 

To what extent is the mechanical figure outside Robert's surgery -a cobbler turned into a dentist - a metaphor for Robert himself? 

Why does Hannah agree to go to church in chapter 5?

Who, ultimately, suffers the most: Hannah, Simon, or their parents?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 August, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg. It is published by Sceptre at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-444-76237-2.

About the book

The obvious incarnational associations of "Grace" and "Mary" are taken up by this Hardy-esque book, which deals with the identities of two women, and their unwitting impact on each other. Mary, who is 92, is losing her identity through dementia. Her son, John, aged 71, attempts to alleviate her distress by helping her to recall episodes from her long-term memory rather than dwell on her dwindling short-term faculties. He finds that this is a rich and surprising seam: one that takes mother and son on a journey into the past, and which connects them to Mary's mother, Grace, who was forced to give up her illegitimate daughter in 1917.

About the author

Melvyn Bragg's broadcasting career has spanned radio and television, and he has dozens of books - both fiction and non-fiction - to his name, as well as scripts for television and film, and regular newspaper articles. He is the presenter of The South Bank Show on Sky Arts, and has also presented programmes on Radio 4, including In Our Time and Start the Week. His dramatisation of William Tyndale's attempts to translate the Bible, The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, was broadcast on BBC2 in 2013. A significant donor to the Labour Party, he was ennobled in 1998.

 

Books for the next two months:

September: Places of Enchantment by Graham B. Usher

October: The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

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