Three-ring character development

I recently finished Paradiseby Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy, which tells the sad story 21EWP1P03DL._AA_SL160_.jpgof Hannah Luckraft, a 40-year-old alcoholic whose drab life is on a 40-proof express train to rock bottom. According to the dust jacket, it’s “an emotional and visceral tour de force. A compelling examination of failure that is also a comic triumph….”

Well, perhaps the marketing winkies got a trifle carried away there, but it is indeed a very fine novel.

Textured, fully rounded characters populate literary fiction more than the genres. There’s a passage about two-thirds into Paradise where Hannah recalls a childhood memory of going to the circus with her father. Forgive the lengthy passage, but it’s worth the effort.

… I can call up the heavily, sweating air, sagged between the canvas and the cold, odd lights, the fascinating quantity of sawdust – more than I’d ever seen in a butcher’s shop – and here were live animals jolting through their stressed little party pieces before maybe the sawdust claimed them and they turned into meat. But that’s as much as I recall.

It was a long time ago and I was extremely young, but that isn’t why I have such trouble bringing it to mind. I’m unwilling to see the tired, dull, real circus, because it degrades the much lovelier one I have, perhaps always, kept inside my head.

Everyone goes through a circus phase, of course: the wonderful horror of watching adults behave insanely, the mysterious charge of their costumes, their skin, and all those compounded risks. You can run through the list of charms yourself: the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.

They still often televised this perversity when I was a girl and then there was that film with Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston – lots of films, in fact, with jealous lovers and wicked ringmasters and anthropomorphic chimps – people knew about circuses – they were around. And children were supposed to like them and I was a child. But my circus, the one True Circus, I never disclosed: because it had nothing to do with all that.

In my circus, the band plays always: banjos and flat trumpets, out-of-kilter violins, twisted accordions, steam organs and bad unresonant drums: they grind out in limping waltz time and make the air giddy, gamy with sweat and topple me into the place where there are only circus people, sideshow people, my own people. They have parts that are missing, or parts that are extra in sly and unspeakable ways. They lack propriety, love to exhibit, often practise after-hours. They have marvelous, shocking skills which are not useful anywhere, not anywhere without an audience. Their pasts and their futures are sheened with misfortunes, with an enforced appetite for pain. Their damp and close and everlasting present stiffens with blood on demand. They can read strangers, curse them, work them into helplessness. They are freaks. They are monsters. They are my natural family.

A lesser writer might have Hannah express her self-perceived place with a cliched, “I feel like a sideshow freak.” But by extending the descriptive image as she does (which is beautifully rendered in its own right, wouldn’t you agree?) Kennedy opens up a window on Hannah’s state of mind. She is an exile, a misfit and, like the carnival barker, well-versed in the arts of manipulation.

Hannah could be a writer.

Such beautifully observed and articulated detail: “…the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.” Just so. Give us an eye and a voice like that and we’ll follow anywhere. OK maybe not the tin ears on Amazon.com, but most of us will.

Kennedy’s web site, cited above, is well worth the visit for her FAQ.

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