Jonathan Cape, £17.99
Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or James Joyce’s Ulysses, AL Kennedy’s new novel Serious Sweet takes place over a single day and follows the metropolitan wanderings of two characters who eventually meet: Jon, a divorced senior civil servant burdened by shady goings-on in government; and Meg, a recovering alcoholic in treatment for pre-cancerous growths.
Time-stamped segments alternate between the two, but Kennedy also cuts away to brief observations of London life, on the Tube or on the street, in which random kindness breaks out during the daily grind as commuters rush to help an old woman in difficulty or someone gives money to a beggar.
Kennedy has performed as a comedian and her fiction sometimes resembles stand-up, unfolding in a series of observational riffs that emerge from the anguished reveries of her protagonists. It’s entertaining but a slight weariness in the reader can creep in: we know what we’re in for when, say, one episode begins “Jon wasn’t suited to pubs.”
The characters share Kennedy’s righteous political fury as well as her dry sense of humour and there are topical threads about historical child abuse and phone-hacking (the latter with an alarming twist on the headlines). Kennedy is always worth reading—she is a socially engaged experimental writer who also wants to make you laugh. Here, though, it’s the parts that aren’t written to the moment that work best, such as the tender portrait of Jon trying to recover lost ground with his grown-up daughter. Anthony Cummins