War of the words

<strong>Day</strong>

A L Kennedy <em>Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0224077864

A Kennedy, readers and prize committees agree, is a lavishly talented writer. When she's not churning out award-winning novels, she performs as a stand up comic and is, by all accounts, very funny. She claims it's because she has a sad life - that she took up comedy to sustain her after the loss of an important friendship. Her many gifts promise equivalent sparkle from her new novel.

And Day does not disappoint. The warp and weft of the RAF tail-gunner anti-hero's life is constructed from impeccable research at the Imperial War Museum and the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre. The period detail is faultless: "the stink of drizzle rising up from wool and everywhere the smell of living blue: polish and hair oil and that sodding awful pinky-orange soap and Woodbines and Sweet Caporal and those other cheap ones, the ones they give away after ops: 'Thames cigarettes, to flatten out the nerves.'"

Day is the story of an RAF serviceman and prisoner of war who found meaning and escape - as did so many of his class and generation - from an unpromising upbringing in the war. Now, in 1949, he has been employed as an extra in a war film that mirrors much of his real experience. During the actual war, he found camaraderie in the fellowship of his crew, in the dangerous "ops", the swearing and the dark shared humour.

Shipped out to Germany to an ersatz camp, a sort of simulacrum of the real thing, he begins to recall what, in many respects, he would prefer to forget: his boyhood in Staffordshire, where he was helpless to defend his mother against his drunken abusive father; the loss of his mates in bombing raids; and the not-altogether-satisfactory relationship with the woman in his life, Joyce. There is also the memory of his premeditated act of patricide - over which he seems to have no moral uncertainty - the revenge taken on his drunken father with a well-aimed brick, which toppled him into a river where he drowned.

In many ways, Day echoes Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy. But Barker's tale was simply told - the unfamiliar rituals and details of the past were not clouded by riffs of experimental writing. There are times, in contrast, when Day's shifts from third to second person, italics and unpunctuated sentences combine to create a kind of textual madness. Kennedy means, no doubt, to convey the disintegration of her central character's personality - but this queasy loss of sanity is driven less by the narrative than by her novel's discombobulating style. Period detail and bravura writing alone are not enough to create a sympathetic novel.

The technical trickery heightens the flashbacks experienced by A (Alfred) Day - a name presumably chosen to mark him out as an Everyman, a sort of archetypal Unknown Warrior. But the second person, a mode more suited to poetry and sustained moments of intimacy, is unconvincing - it feels, here, like little more than a means to constantly wrong-foot the reader.

Kennedy has defended her stylistic fireworks, saying in a recent interview that experimentation is "like anal sex" - if that's not what readers want, then they should keep away. Yet, sustained over pages, her style is relentless, particularly as the narrative is told exclusively from Alfred's point of view. Other characters - his mother, his girlfriend, even his close mate Pluckrose - all seem like ciphers rather than fully formed people.

Kennedy's writing is often darkly funny, but there is little obvious humour in Day. Her novel is an audacious experiment, but its intrusive, self-conscious style prevents a story of potential pathos from ever truly touching the reader.