The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Val McDermid is the author of, most recently, "A Place of Execution," which won the 2000 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category

Nathan Staples is a best-selling author of Gothic horror novels. He lives in virtual exile on an island with half a dozen other writers, each of whom is about as socially adept as a porcupine. Nathan is consumed by equal measures of self-loathing, anger and recrimination. But it wasn't always this way. Once, Nathan had a promising career as a literary novelist. He had a wife he adored and a child he worshiped. Then his wife, Maura, decided their marriage that was over and that his unhealthy obsession with his writing meant he should never see his daughter, Mary, again.

Nathan has enough insight to understand that without the love that filled his heart, he has no hope of redemption as a human being, so he goes along with the curious compact that unites his island community, albeit with a degree of skepticism. The inhabitants believe they have a recipe for reaching a state of grace. The route involves each devising a series of high-risk physical challenges which, if they failed to survive, would appear to resemble either suicide or bizarre accident. Anyone who makes it through seven rounds of these variations on the principle of Russian roulette will somehow arrive at a kind of Nirvana.

The air of heightened reality induced by these episodes of literally dicing with death seems characteristic of A.L. Kennedy's intent as a writer. From its very dawn, with novels such as James Hogg's "Confessions of a Justified Sinner," serious Scottish fiction has always concerned itself with questions of morality and its relationship to everyday life. For Kennedy, that debate takes place in a paradoxical interior landscape that is simultaneously beyond reality and firmly rooted in the territory beneath the superficial skin of events.

Because Nathan cannot bring himself entirely to embrace the belief of his fellow islanders, he still searches for a more traditional form of redemption. There is a vacancy on the island, and he has engaged the complicity of his fellow writers in offering a seven-year fellowship to his daughter, now in her late teens and with literary aspirations of her own. Nathan will be her mentor.

Mary has no idea of their relationship. In the version of her life provided by her mother, her father died when she was 4. She has no memory of him, and it's been impossible for her to quiz her mother, since Maura abandoned her daughter to the care of her uncle and his homosexual lover years before, apparently because she felt she could no longer care properly for her. Mother and daughter have had no contact since the abandonment; as Oscar Wilde might have said, to be abandoned by one parent is unfortunate, to be abandoned by both looks remarkably like a literary device.

Already, Kennedy has stretched the suspension of disbelief almost beyond the breaking point. It's hard to believe that anyone Mary's age would commit to a seven-year writing apprenticeship on an isolated island, leaving behind her beloved uncles and the fledgling romantic relationship that has awakened her own sensual nature. It's hard to believe she's never seen her birth certificate, which must name Nathan as her father. It's hard to believe that any of the damaged and self-regarding personalities on Foal Island could ever write a word anyone would want to read. It's almost impossible to believe in Nathan's editor, J.D. Grace, whose bizarre descent through spirals of drinking and sexual perversity to utter degradation provides a barely recognizable picture of London literary life.

Nevertheless, Kennedy weaves a potent verbal spell that makes these quibbles seem irrelevant. In this sprawling narrative, covering Mary's seven years as the sorcerer's apprentice, we are drawn inexorably forward, eager to see where we will be taken. It is clear that Kennedy understands the mechanics of the heart. "Everything You Need" depicts relationships of astonishing tenderness as well as those of breathtaking viciousness. In one of her precise and painfully scrupulous images, one couple is described as going together "like a chest infection and phlegm."

Nathan's own stumbling journey often seems to consist of two steps forward and three back. Nevertheless, he makes gradual progress toward recovering both his essential humanity and his lost literary ideals. After years of writing genre fiction by the numbers, he finally begins to struggle toward the composition of a literary novel, and sharing in this endeavor brings the reader to compassion. In spite of Nathan's often infuriating behavior, Kennedy manages to make us care about his fate and wish him well.

In parallel to her exploration of the price we pay for love and the occasionally ambiguous rewards it brings runs a similar examination of what it is to be a writer. With searing honesty and a liberal larding of blackly comic set pieces, Kennedy dissects her own professional world. Literary prizes are satirized with titles like "Themiddleclasswankers Thankyoufortrying Award" (sponsored by Gubbins and Muggins Electric Shock Batons Inc.). But there are more serious points made here about the commodification of authors and the cult of personality. She is acidic about the corrosive nature of much contemporary publishing, in which commercial pressures are paramount and the natural development of writers is sacrificed for short-term gain.

What also shines through is how clearly she understands the impossibility of escaping the vocation of words. At one point, Nathan explains it thus to Mary: "Sometimes, at the heart of me, there won't fall a word, there will be nothing but the wait. But then it comes, it speaks, it's there for me and I am there for it. We give ourselves to each other, we each possess the other, we agree. And after that, nothing can stop us. Not even me."

At the heart of this book is the suspense that hangs over the secret relationship between Nathan and Mary. Everyone else on the island knows they are father and daughter. Both have parallel reunions with Maura, neither of which resolves the outstanding issues between them. We are constantly poised, holding our breath and waiting for the revelation that will provoke some cathartic and possibly cataclysmic event. And it never comes.

It's difficult to understand why Kennedy opts for an ending that looks disturbingly like a failure of narrative nerve. She is clearly not afraid to write about the darkest recesses of human relationships, which makes this frustrating conclusion all the stranger. If her intention was to suggest that there can be no neat resolution in the affairs of men, there are other narrative strategies she could have chosen. But to leave so central an event to the reader's imagination feels like a cop-out. Of course a writer wants her readers to carry the characters beyond the pages, to picture their lives continuing in the light of what they have been through. Yet to build so strongly toward a climactic moment and then to abandon it seems inexplicable.

Nevertheless, flawed as it is, "Everything You Need" stakes its claim as another distinctive monument in the landscape of contemporary Scottish writing. Truthful, surprising and visceral, it provokes the sort of response that reminds us what fiction is for. *

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World