Serious Sweet by A. L. Kennedy

Serious Sweet A. L. KennedyLonglisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘Serious Sweet’ by A. L. Kennedy is set over the course of twenty-four hours in London in 2014, following a day in the lives of 45-year-old recovering alcoholic Meg Williams and 59-year-old divorced senior civil servant Jon Sigurdsson. At first, the characters appear to lead seemingly separate lives but it is gradually revealed that their paths have already crossed before. The day revolves around the pair attempting to meet and whether they are able to move on from the traumatic events which have shaped their lives.

Kennedy’s writing works best at the “snapshot” level of intimate observations. Some of Meg and Jon’s inner monologues which intersperse the narrative are excellent examples of this as are the interludes between chapters describing strangers in London. The narrative moves easily between personal and political issues with some angry and affecting passages about the events in Meg and Jon’s lives which have caused them to be in their present situation as well as sharp satire about modern life in London and the inner workings of the civil service (“everything changes and nothing changes”).

However, it is the bigger picture where Kennedy loses focus. The main issue I had with ‘Serious Sweet’ is that at 500 pages in length, it is far too meandering and could quite easily have been about half the length with twice the impact. Although some back story is necessary to outline the characters, there is too much of it which slows the pace considerably. Then there is the improbability of how Meg and Jon actually met and despite the story ending on a positive note, I didn’t finish the book with high hopes for their long-term future.

This all makes ‘Serious Sweet’ a bit of a frustrating read, particularly as the premise of the story sounded so promising and Kennedy’s skill at describing the minutiae of emotions ought to have been well suited to a story set in such a narrow time frame. There are lots of little moments of brilliance which kept me reading to the end but the overall effect is quite messy – a bit like Meg and Jon’s relationship or even London itself.

I would be surprised if ‘Serious Sweet’ made the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize which is due to be announced on 13th September. Out of the three longlisted titles I’ve read so far, I would most like to see Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh on the shortlist but I appreciate that it could be quite divisive so I’m not too sure of its chances. The other two books I am interested in but haven’t read yet are ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien and ‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet which I hope will be strong contenders.

My impression from reading other reviews is that ‘Serious Sweet’ isn’t one of Kennedy’s best books and I think I might prefer her short story collections or one of her more compact novels such as ‘Day’ which won the Costa Book of the Year in 2007.

Many thanks to Random House UK Jonathan Cape for sending me a review copy of ‘Serious Sweet’ via NetGalley.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Serious Sweet by A. L. Kennedy

  1. I was going to start this one soon but I am not as enthusiastic about it after seeing your review. I might give it a shot anyway.

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  2. Oh no how disappointing. I like ALK but always struck by the difference between her funny, precise journalistic style and the way her fiction is more distant and less urgent. I was thinking of getting this as my next Kindle read but maybe I should get Eileen instead?

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  3. Couldn’t agree more.

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  4. Jeff

    Isn’t there a tension between the messiness of a story reflecting real life and a neat or convenient story being unconvincing? I say this noting that as well as messy, this one has an improbable meeting. The messy story has a probability that, while acting as an enabler for the reader to get into what the nitty gritty does, can miss out on a sense of why an author is going to the trouble of telling a story at all, which a neater and tidier narrative can achieve with economy. Did you get a sense of why Kennedy tells us about these two people? I have a collection of her short stories sitting unread on a shelf, acting as they are on my conscience – this is another story. Do you think I’m likely to find a plethora of notes taken in public places and cobbled into something for no apparent reason?

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    • Yes I think there is a tension between some aspects being too messy and other parts being too neat. The main characters are unconventional in that they are not the sort of characters who would normally be portrayed as romantic leads – unlikeable and emotionally damaged as they are – but they also reflect the reality of what some people in their 40s and 50s with a lot of baggage go through when starting new relationships. I think there is a mismatch between Kennedy’s strengths as a writer and the wider scope of what she is trying to achieve here. The character observations are good but some elements could have worked better or more convincingly if the story hadn’t been constricted to a timespan of 24 hours.

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      • Jeff

        Good point about the time frame. A small window for characters of those age groups. Is it used as a device for anything? Urgency? Comparative uses and densities of time as it’s experienced?

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      • The density of time as it’s experienced isn’t something I really thought about when I was reading it but I guess it’s the main reason why Kennedy chose to tell the story in that way. I wouldn’t say urgency though, it ought to have been a shorter book if it was!

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  5. A helpful review. This book has been on my radar for awhile, after I read her book ‘On Writing’ which I thoroughly enjoyed and found, although not that practical, useful in a more philosophical sort of way. I don’t feel so overwhelmed now at having to add this to my tbr pile. Phew! Thanks.

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  6. I agree, there is a sense of desperation but not urgency, but this maybe because of the fundamental drag on pace caused by the endless ‘thinking’ that has to go down on the page, a fleeting thought can take half a page!!!

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  7. Thanks for your review. I still plan to read it.

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  8. You are kinder than I have been. I had never read any Kennedy, but have always appreciated her on Radio 4 where she does short broadcasts (I think in the A Point of View slot) So, offered this by Net galley I jumped………….and had to abandon in quite quickly as I found it a bit flabby. I haven’t reviewed it at all, other than to let the publisher know that I couldn’t finish it, so a review would not really be fair! I do find if I make myself finish a book which isn’t working I tend to give a crosser review than might be deserved!

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