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Sunday, March 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Paradise in a bottle

Special to The Seattle Times


by A.L. Kennedy
Knopf, 304 pp., $25

In my household, when you review a book by A.L. Kennedy, you better keep a close watch on the merchandise. For when the time comes for double-checking the quotes you've chosen to include in your review, you can't find the book. That's how readable she is.

"Paradise," the latest novel by the Scottish author of "Original Bliss" and "So I Am Glad," is a stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic. If you drink you will understand its bravery; if you have been wounded by the disease you will flinch at its honesty.

Hannah Luckraft is a Scottish woman in her late 30s. She sells high-grade cardboard boxes for a living. She has a loving mother and father, and a beloved younger brother, Simon, a doctor, who is so exasperated with her behavior he can barely speak to her.

When we first meet Hannah, she is standing in a hotel dining room holding a room key in her hand. Hannah is reconstructing her whereabouts after losing her memory of the previous day. It's happened before. For Hannah, it's a kind of survival strategy:

"One of the many pleasures of forgetting is, as we all of us know, remembering." There are people you meet in life that seem out of place here. Knowing them, you might say (though never to their face), "you are too pure, or frail, or odd for this world."

Hannah is too smart for hers. She is the sort of woman who tries to make witty conversation about a prospective DVD purchase with a bored shop clerk:

" 'Lesbian Tarts Having Sex' seems a bit vague. I mean, I wouldn't want to end up buying something I wasn't sure of. Does it have harpsichords? Or skating? Folding chairs? Do any characters feign amnesia as a ruse? I was in that running-off-at-the-mouth mood, chirpy, in need of a chum to banter with."

Nobody gets Hannah except her boyfriend Robert, a married dentist with a thirst as great as hers. Their evenings are spent in bars; their early mornings, tumbling into bed, making sweet explorations of love: "Robert left hours ago, but the imprint of him woke me all over again, moving. My skin has shouted up through every dream, playing and replaying him: the shimmer of hands, mouth, stomach, tongue, fingers, his touch as whole as water closing round me, slipping me under, finding everything. And inside, Robert inside, locked, the feel of him rocking, darting, searching, the way he was."

Hannah and Robert are a loving disaster together. They know it, can't help it. Things spiral down. They try to slow down, back off. Hannah ends up at her parents' house, then at her brother's place when she gets violently ill. Soon, she is on her way to Canada for treatment.

At the Clear Spring clinic, Hannah gives it her best shot. After a week she can feel some benefits from the "Spartan approach": "I feel clean here, for example: bleached-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb, you-could-eat-off-me clean. There's something going on inside my soul, a sense — at still moments — that it's shining, thriving in the mountain air."

Yet the sobriety she is being prodded into doesn't address her fundamental loneliness:

"I've been professionally groped here for over a week: whatever thrill there was in it has gone. I'll tell him my dream and he'll grill me about masturbation or fetishes and then try to make me feel abnormal. This doesn't suit people like me — or Hitt. We need something gentle."

"Paradise" is not a cautionary tale. It's not about saving someone from destructive impulses. It's about the battle of consciousness, a mind fighting itself. Hannah can see deep into the heart of things but can't make things better. So she seeks a place of happiness, beyond disappointment.

You won't ever read a book that describes alcohol so lovingly, that treats each level of intoxication with the respect due an old friend. Nor will you ever encounter more terrifying passages of alcohol withdrawal. You also won't find finer prose than this anywhere in English.

This novel, for this reviewer, is her most accomplished, her most personal. Hannah Luckraft feels like your sister; she stirs you up in ways only siblings can.

Richard Wallace is a Seattle writer and the live-theater coordinator for the Museum of Flight.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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