I have always found Alison Kennedy's books a bit dull, which is a shame because in real life she is a live wire with a mordantly dry wit. So I approached Serious Sweet, courtesy of its Booker longlisting, with a bit of trepidation.
I needn't have worried.
Perhaps it is the basic premise - a middle ranking civil servant working in Tothill Street finds himself out of favour at work and bored by his lonely home life. I was that person, right down to working in Tothill Street, way back 15 years ago. Or perhaps it is the sardonic take on London life in the 21st Century. But whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of Jon Sigurdsson. Meg Williams, on the other hand, as a clerical worker in an animal shelter felt less immediately accessible.
The novel itself is a bit like Ulysses. Jon and Meg wander around London over a 24 hour period with a vague intention of meeting up but being waylaid by various people. Meg spends time in hospital, almost as a parallel to Joyce's scene in the maternity hospital. And whilst there is a love story between the two of them, what you really have is an extended study of two characters, set against a wider study of contemporary London (and the wider nation and its government). Neither Jon nor Meg is terribly likeable - Jon is pompous and Meg is a whinger - but neither is either of them contemptible. They are complex, flawed characters who are unhappy with life; the reader comes to want them to have a chance of happiness even if it is not going to be in the terms of a Hollywood Rom Com.
The writing really is stellar in terms of creating a sense of person and a sense of place. Kennedy uses a device of third person narrative blended with italicised first person stream of consciousness from both Jon and Meg's perspective. There are also little vignettes dropped in of everyday city life - life in cafes, on the streets , in parks or on the Tube. This scene changing offer welcome relief from what might otherwise have felt too claustrophobic. It also offers enough hooks that anyone who has lived in London will recognise details. Kennedy has a way of making everyday details seem significant, and in such a way that the reader gets an "a-ha" moment on recognising each of those details.
The novel is long; there's no getting away from that. And at times, the lack of plot driven action can feel a bit like meandering (which is, of course, what Jon and Meg are doing). There are diversions into politics, philosophy and personal history. There is a wealth of words dedicated to the gap between the personal and the public self. And at times, it can feel slow. But, again like Ulysses, if parts of the text can feel like a bit of a slog, the impression at the end is one of heartfelt beauty and grace. For the reader, it comes together as a complete experience that handsomely repays the effort it took to get there.
Over the passage of time, the memory of some novels grow and others recede. I suspect this one is a grower.