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The Blue Book

Could it be magic?

The Blue Book
A L Kennedy
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

Magicians, psychics and those who dabble in the paranormal exert a strange fascination over writers. In recent years, three of our most interesting female novelists have taken up the subject. Sarah Waters's Affinity dealt with dodgy Victorian spiritualists; Nicola Barker's Clear was built around the illusionist David Blaine's 44-day stint suspended in a glass box above the Thames; Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black told the story of a psychic who faked readings but was haunted by the ghosts of her childhood abusers.

There's something about the art of the illusionist that lies very close to the novelist's own. Both depend on smoke and mirrors, artful lies and a willing suspension of disbelief. The Blue Book, A L Kennedy's sixth novel, might move by turns through mystery, love story and comedy of shipboard manners, but its central subject is the transgressive, near-sexual pleasure of passing off fiction as fact.

Elizabeth Barber is embarking on a transatlantic cruise in the company of her dull and soon-to-be-seasick boyfriend, Derek, when she is accosted by a man in the queue. He performs a magic trick, one of the "think of a number" kind, and presents her at its conclusion with a book in which her number - seven - is printed on consecutive pages. Judging by her reaction, the incident seems inconsequential, if annoying, and only gradually does the reader realise their conversation has taken place in code.

The numbers are a language that Beth learned during her abortive career as a fake psychic, a way of communicating information in secret. She worked with a partner, Arthur Lockwood, "swapping and making the codes: the counting, the signals and the counter-signals - like kiss against kiss". An erotic activity, but also an exploitative one, preying on the bereaved and their hope for contact by way of

what the man's found out since he arrived - this in the days before Facebook, Twitter, before lives were bent over for exploitation everyfuckingwhere.The man had to work for what he knows, gather overhearings and gossip and newspaper cuttings and In Memoriams and graveyard tours andaverages, statistics and guesses that are always educated.

“Everyfuckingwhere" is a characteristic locution. The narrative slips bonelessly between minds, catching waves of thought and turning repeatedly from irritation - "fuck you", "fuck off" - to sex. Much is written in a seductive, occasionally overbearing second person; the novel even opens by announcing itself as "your book", though the identity of "you" is saved for the end.

This insinuating tone gives Kennedy room to examine the moral ambiguity of the psychic's work. Lockwood, who has become very rich in Elizabeth's absence, is eager to justify his trade. In one scene, he recalls working with a Rwandan refugee whose husband was murdered. Maybe the service, which is free in such cases, could be seen as a benison, but the later revelation about how it is funded - by frightening widowed millionaires - makes it clear how exploitative his "counterfeit affection" is.

That does not mean he is incapable of affection. Structured as a compelling riddle, the faltering relationship between Arthur and Elizabeth includes some of the most unashamedly erotic writing since Nicholson Baker first contemplated a telephone receiver. But neither has passed through life unharmed, and, without giving away too much about their injuries, one must hope at the last that "nine" can be made to mean not "pain" but "meet me".

A more cynical writer might have been content with exposing the fraudulent, but Kennedy's interest in psychics seems to be what they tell us about the commonality of human loss. If there is no second sight, but merely close observation, the marvel lies in how far one person can see into another. Observing an unattractive crowd, Elizabeth reminds herself "that they can transcend themselves and blaze, astonish, be amazed . . . and, as repeatedly established, their hearts will be broken, perhaps more than once, and at some point they will cease to exist . . . these things are certain for them. So they can deserve only tenderness." Not everyone has a knack for seeing this way, and even fewer are capable of presenting it with Kennedy's risky, inventive integrity.

Olivia Laing's "To the River" is published by Canongate (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule