Sunday, April 08, 2012

74. Everything You Need - A.L.Kennedy

Everything You Need is a beautifully written tale of love's endurance. It also masterfully captures the ongoing struggle for self-mastery and self-expression in an innovative and entertaining way.

Nathan and Mary circle each other warily throughout the novel, tentatively stepping together then startling apart. Their relationship constantly spirals inwards towards the final moment of revelation, when Nathan delivers his novel to Mary – his last novel, his serious novel, the novel which chronicles his romance with Maura and his delight in Mary's childhood. Nathan is, after all, Mary's father... although he is afraid to admit it.

Although he has had no contact with her for maybe 15 years or more, Nathan is still obsessively in love with his ex-wife, Mary's mother. He yearns for her with every atom of his being and it is her memory – the thought that she might be out there somewhere, reading, that keeps him writing.

Nathan lives on Foal Island, a small, strange, isolated community of writers led by the enigmatic and empathetic lighthouse keeper, Joe. When one of the seven writers dies, Joe and Nathan invite Mary, Nathan's long-lost daughter, to join them. Mary aspires to be a writer and Nathan is to be her mentor. Mary has been told by her mother that her father is dead, and she finds Nathan alternately frustrating and attractive. Meanwhile, Nathan is paralysed by his fear of losing her again and avoids every opportunity to reveal the true nature of their relationship. In private, he pours his memories of her childhood into what he swears will be his last and greatest novel. These memories are so honest, sweet and tender, it is impossible to imagine Mary not understanding and forgiving him.

At a young age, Mary was left by her mother in the care of The Uncles! - Bryn, her mother's elder brother, and his life partner Morgan. The endearingly gentle if somewhat strange way these elderly Welshmen look after Mary is best illustrated by the scene following 19 year old Mary's first sexual encounter.
The Uncles were here.
They'd padded into her unbuttoned room. They were here with her now, speaking. Finally, their reality yanked her dumb awake.
'Ah, there now, Mary. What should we do?'
They stood, Morgan holding the tea tray, Bryn's hands holding themselves, and each man gently but plainly alarmed by the way they had chosen to proceed. Still, they were trying to do right by Mary, to let her feel at home and approved of, loved. She lurched up and opened her eyes to Bryn's face: his puzzled eyes fighting not to seem lost. …
Bryn nodded through a carefully presented smile. 'We thought you might want a drink. Or a little to eat. We find that we do.'
'Afterwards.' Morgan drew away from the bed and back towards the door.
Mary and Jonathan lay rigid, sheet drawn to their chins, eyes dumbfounded, like a pair of bad Staffordshire figures - The Lovers Apprehended.
'It's as if...' Bryn pondered, also moving for the doorway, 'you'd been on a bus trip for a long time, so you're peckish. Something like that.' He blinked at Jonathan, his voice wavering, perhaps at the verge of laughter, perhaps only made unsteady by the strain of the occasion. 'We do wish you well.'
'We do.'
Mary finally found herself saying, 'I didn't know -'
'We were here. No.'
'We weren't. We had gone out. But then we came back.'
'Because you might need us.'
'You know.'
'We were here in case.'
As if they were taking their leave from royalty, Bryn and Morgan backed respectfully away.
'Mary?' Bryn waited until she turned to him, gave him her proper attention, 'We just wanted you to be comfortable. And, um, proud. Your first time should be something to be proud of, because you'll remember it. Perhaps this wasn't the best...' He huffed. 'Drink your tea, now, before it gets cold.'

There is a lot of swearing in this novel, but it is largely used appropriately, in context, and after a while I stopped noticing it so much. There is also a lot of poetry – not set off in rhyming stanzas, but inextricably part of the language in which the story is told. Words are important in this book and they have obviously been chosen with care – to amuse and entertain, to endear and entice, to shock and surprise. Nathan's melancholy musings and self obsession are depicted with a black macabre humour which I found quite appealing.
He was waiting and didn't like it. Never had. The wait, this particular wait: it was always so demanding, so predictably calculating and lecherous – give it an inch or a moment and it closed on him in a tingling swarm to his warmer parts. It bit round the cartilage lip of his ears, breathed close to the bare of his neck, it was brazen at his armpits and the quiet joints of his thighs, it made him sweat. His body weight stung down unfairly against his tensing prick, while his thoughts sank and dressed to the left with a stocky tick of blood.
Rubbing an opened wound with living wasps. My wound. My wasps.
Or stapling my scrotum to the flesh of my inner thighs and then performing Scottish country dances until I feel my socks congeal.
I think that would be worse.

This was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. A figure of no fun at all, waiting for something which would not happen, could not happen, which should not be considered and surely to God had been set and settled a pathetically long time ago – put to rest on the much larger island near which his was fixed. Surely to God this was over with now, surely she was over with.
Being sodomised by an ill-tempered man using a plaster model of my own grandmother's arm.
That would be noticeably worse.

That's Nathan. Always looking on the bright side of life :P

All the characters in this novel are fascinating, from the other members of the writers community, each with their own personal obsessions, to Nathan's literary agent and publisher, Jack. Jack is worthy of a complete review in his own right, so I will leave you to discover him for yourself!

I did not expect to like this novel, but by the end I was thoroughly hooked.

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