Longlisted 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.