Serious Sweet, by AL Kennedy

>> Wednesday, August 24, 2016

TITLE: Serious Sweet
AUTHOR: AL Kennedy

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

A good man in a bad world, Jon Sigurdsson is fifty-nine and divorced, a senior civil servant in London who hates many of his colleagues and loathes his work for a government engaged in unmentionable acts.

Meg Williams is a bankrupt accountant—two words you don’t want in the same sentence, or anywhere near your résumé. She’s forty-five and shakily sober, living on Telegraph Hill in London, where she can see the city unfurl below her.

Somewhere out there is Jon, pinballing around the city with a cell phone and a letter-writing habit he can’t break. He’s a man on the brink, leaking government secrets and affection for a woman he barely knows as he runs for his life.

Poignant, deeply funny, and beautifully written, Serious Sweet is about two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world, ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty and for a chance at tenderness. As Jon and Meg navigate the sweet and serious heart of London—passing through twenty-four hours that will change them both forever—they tell an unusual and moving love story.
Another read from the Man Booker longlist.

Serious Sweet tells the story of a day in which two damaged people try to meet up and find something good in a world that's otherwise full of cruelty and indifference.

He is Jon Sigurdsson, a disenchanted senior civil servant who's been rebelling against what his department is doing by leaking information. Jon is recently divorced from a woman who treated him with cruelty and contempt, and as a reaction to this, took to writing kind and sweet letters to women. He set that up as a sort of service (advertising it and charging a modest amount for a dozen of bespoke hand-written letters), but he gets as much, if not much more, out of it than his correspondents.

Not that his correspondents don't get quite a lot out of his letters. The second person is one of them, Meg Williams, a woman who's struggling to rebuild her life after a few years in which alcoholism cost her both relationships and career. Jon's letters touched her and helped her, enough to make her take the uncharacterstically bold step of finding him in person.

Jon was just as drawn by Meg's replies to his letters, so that was the first of a couple of meetings. So the meeting on the day of the story is just one more, but as circumstances conspire against their getting together, this one becomes more and more significant.

The bare story told here was one that appealed to me. These are good people who have been deeply wounded, and I was rooting for them to find something good, the kindness and tenderness each desperately needed. At its heart this is a romance, and the relationship was one I believed in. The tone was sad and yet hopeful, and this worked well.

However. Oh, however. My main issue was the writing. It's very challenging. That's not a problem per se; the thing is, it was not challenging in a good way. There's lots and lots and lots of internal monologue interspersed throughout any dialogue or action, and that felt overpowering. It often starts fine, but then devolves into stream of consciousness nonsense. I confess to a prejudice against this particular narrative technique. I accept it can be done well, but I find it all too easy to lose interest when it's not. And I didn't feel it was great here. There are some nuggets of sharp observation, yes, but it felt like wading through treacle to get to them. And there was such a lot of pointless treacle. I really had to force myself to keep going.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the... I guess I could call it "setting" of Jon's life. Jon's supposed to be a senior civil servant, and quite a lot of the plot, such as it is, revolves around that. I was actually drawn by this, because this is my world, and it's not one I see portrayed in fiction very often. There was an initial thrill of recognition: Oh, his office is in Tothill Street? That's probably Caxton House, I wonder if he's supposed to work in DWP. Oh, he clearly does! But that was all it was, superficial recognition of some of the trappings of his life. I didn't really recognise the characters. Jon didn't feel like any senior civil servant I know, with his dithering and seeming isolation (funny thing is, I actually know someone who used to do the job I'm guessing Jon is supposed to be in!). The world of the civil service Kennedy portrays is the stereotype: faceless, anonymous, middle-aged white men. That's not what I see day to day, and it was disappointing.

The whole thing was disappointing, actually. And the most frustrating thing is that the book demonstrates what Kennedy can do. There are these little vignettes at the ends of chapters, basically showing us little scenes around London, and these are fantastic. They are sharply observed and interesting and poignant. I wanted more of that, less of the waffle.



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