From one of the U.K.’s most dazzling novelists—whom Richard Ford has called “a profound writer”—comes this daring new novel set in the unsteady, self-contained world of a luxury liner.
While on a transatlantic trip with her soon-to-be-fiancé Derek, Elizabeth unexpectedly runs into ex-lover Arthur, with whom she shares a shady past: the pair once worked as traveling spiritual mediums who conned the vulnerable by pretending to contact the spirits of departed loved ones. While Derek remains seasick and cabin-bound, Elizabeth wanders the ship, alternately avoiding and seeking out Arthur. Unable to avoid memories of their fractured past, she must face the deception they practiced even as she accepts the peace they brought to the grief-stricken who sought their services.
Intimately addressed to “you,” the reader, The Blue Book is both a portrait of two methodical con artists and a meditation on “how love is a private language, a set of codes, to which the outside world ought not admit impediment” (Telegraph). Irresistibly written, by turns comically wry and stunningly lyrical, with “some of the most unashamedly erotic writing since Nicholson Baker first contemplated a telephone receiver” (New Statesman), the book slowly, deliberately, and devastatingly reveals itself to the reader. The heartbreaking stakes are ultimately nothing less than fact and fiction, life and death.
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But here this is, the book you’re reading.
Your book — it’s started now, it’s touched and opened, held. You could, if you wanted, heft it, wonder if it weighs more than a pigeon, or a Plimsoll, or quite probably rather less than a wholemeal loaf. It offers you these possibilities.
And, quite naturally, you face it. Your eyes, your lips are turned towards it — all that paleness, all those marks — and you are so close here that if it were a person you might kiss. That might be unavoidable.
You can remember times when kissing has been unavoidable. You are not, after all, unattractive: not when people understand you and who you can be.
And you’re a reader — clearly — here you are reading your book, which is what it was made for. It loves when you look, wakes when you look, and then it listens and it speaks. It was built to welcome your attention and reciprocate with this: the sound it lifts inside you. It gives you the signs for the shapes of the names of the thoughts in your mouth and in your mind and this is where they sing, here at the point where you both meet.
Which is where you might imagine, might even elicit, the tremble of paper, that unmistakable flinch. It moves for you, your book, and it will always show you all it can.
And this is when it needs to introduce you to the boy.
This boy, he is deep in the summer of 1974 and by himself and cutting up sharp from a curve in the road and climbing a haphazard, wriggling style and next he is over and on to the meadow, his purpose already set.
No, not a meadow: only scrub grass and some nettles, their greens faded by a long, demanding summer and pale dust.
So it’s simply a field, then — not quite who it was in its spring.
A field with an almost teenager live inside it.
He is, taken altogether, a taut thing and a sprung thing, free and also rattled with being free, and there is no particular path across this field, but the boy knows his way and heads for its most distant border. Hands quick, feet quicker, Plimsolls and a washed-out yellow shirt, shorts that are greyish and fawnish, that have a torn pocket at the back. His clothes are too small and yet also slack in a way that suggests he is both longer and leaner than when they were bought. He is running as if pursued.
Ahead of him, the air shrugs with afternoon heat, distorts — he likes this. He mainly likes uncertain and changeable things — they seem to offer more chances for comfort, success. And sometimes they’re all that he gets so he has to make the best of them.
His footfalls jar, drum, as he drives into a harder and harder pace, fists lifting as high as his throat, head back. He is as brown as all the island’s children, dark from months of swimming, running, rowing, scrambling, months of bicycles and horses, little boats, months of hoarding stones and noting birds and of the pleasures in simple exhaustion. The boy’s expression is currently thin and fierce. At a distance, it isn’t easy to judge if this comes from effort, or emotion.
He reaches the opposite fence, swings himself over easily, fluidly, fast. His body is made of long, hard balances and strengths which take constant practice: there are days when he stumbles, breaks things, fails. Today, though, he is neck and neck with his own growth. Tomorrow, it will probably beat him again, muffle him up in clumsiness. In the end, he will be the bobbing head-and-shoulders above in almost any group, will feel his height as a responsibility, a potential trap. He is already beginning to know this, but the knowledge is still light and he has taken to the pleasures of being visible, selected, dominant. His hair also draws the eye — fair, currently close to white at its tips, a salt white that deepens into honey against his scalp, his skin. He is not unattractive, but will always assume he is simply passable, scraping by. This will often seem charming.
He takes the only possible track onwards — a snug route between high blackthorn hedges, like the start of a maze. He enjoys being hidden in the din of bees, the scuffles of dunnocks and wrens, of fugitive lives. His feet run in the centre of the path where the cropped turf dips as if it were being bowed, stretched down beneath his special weight. Trees reach across and shadow him. With the green below and the green above, he could be in a tunnel, could be bulleting into the secret of something, unlocking it. And the tunnel leads down, tilts headlong down, until it balks at the cliff’s edge and flexes into a sudden turn, then tacks back and forth across the face of a sharp descent, plunging on in a kind of crouch, huddling as far as it can from the threat of winds and the bright sea’s watching.
The tunnel is no longer constant from here on: the boy sometimes breaks out across tawny exposures of stone, lopes beside tumbled drops and distances and the wide blare of sealight. Sometimes the branches clasp in over him again with a thick press of humid air, cobwebs, bramble tears — they touch him like music, stroke and cling and prick. Inside he is mostly filled with music, seems to himself that he shudders and glows with it, with so many beautiful details: names and lyrics, sleeve notes, playlists, artwork, mystically important anecdotes. On his best days, he is racked with music to the point of helpless smiling.
Only once, the boy pauses in the crook of a naked turn, is shaken by his own breath, folds over to touch his knees and stares at the howling, unsteadying blue of water. He feels its breath rise and brush him, sees the white gnaw and fumble of it against rocks and the seam where it fits under the sky. The blue stares back, bullets clear through him and out the other side. The boy feels it does not care about him, is only a terrible, hungry dazzle.
And then his intentions take him again, harry and press, and the grass underfoot steepens, sheers away deep into a final slither, an excuse to be out of control before he reaches the brink: the metal post, the first of the fixed ropes. He almost grins.
Descending is difficult — he has learned it is much easier to climb. Here, he can’t see where his toes kick in and bounce, has to control his body as it swings, one line dropping to another, from post to post, threading the twists of the route and winding him lower. He bears his own weight safe, hands clever round the fat, stiff strands. He likes the effort, sweat, wishes it were more, for torn hands and bleeding, for the test of a fall.
Below him is the Pot: a tiny cove pocketed in behind a high, containing wall and floored with a fawny grey chaos of rocks. The boy makes his last spring, looses the rope and lets his feet land with a grinding clack amongst the wreckage and cold echoes. There is a sense here of something temporarily absent, a power that will return and overwhelm. The boy feels his shins tickle with its thrill and wishes he could properly savour the fear, believe it and be transported by its possibilities. He stepping-stones across the foreheads of the flatter boulders, aiming for an archway to his left.
At one time, he supposes, the Pot must have been really like a pot, a round little space sealed up from the tide, but the fabric of the island is never reliable. The whole place has worried itself into passages, landslips, caves, stacks. And long ago the miners worked at it: he imagines them, imported strangers with candlelit talents, grimly burrowing down between magnetite, haematite, sphalerite, bornite — the boy keeps the rhymes hot under his tongue like a spell. He likes to whisper the musical complications of argentiferous pyrite and hornblende gneiss. He belongs to the island, because he can name its bones. But it is unforgivably delicate: even the granite headlands seem shattered by some terrible, ancient impact. They are more shocked heaps of weight than permanent features.
And the Pot’s feet-thick defences have been breached: a dark, lithe passageway leads along a fault line and will let in the high water. It lets the boy go out. He scrambles to one side of a huge, dropped boulder, fits between stones smoothed into contours that might be the flanks of some strange living thing. Above him is the nice threat of other faulting, sudden falls — ahead is sunwarmth on surfaces, the rasp of limpets and a small shore which is his: in its heart, it is his and should be his and was meant to be forever his. This was the only certainty he wanted. There will only be one other he ever will.
Back in the cottage his mother will still be packing. Although she is very familiar with moving, she will take hours to fill and then unfill her bags, to rearrange and start again. The boy has told her he will deal with his own things. He always does.
This afternoon, he lies down on his back amongst the lowest rocks, settles and shifts until they can properly dig in and bite him. There are buttresses and thrones here ready for him, granite platforms that lift him so he can observe, but today he won’t use them. He shuts his eyes and lets the roar of daylight bleed through and the reek of the sea is already tight around him, nearly wicked — it has the hotmetal, weird, stark taste of himself doing bad, himself at the start of sex, of his whole, red lifetime’s allowance of sex. It’s the scent, to be truthful, of being beyond the start and lost in a newness of want, of blurred demands and lapping, tidal fears.
But today is about something else — not being scared, not being a body, not about coping with any of that.
The boy swallows and he pauses and he parts his lips and then he is angry. He is furious.
At last, he is beside himself. He is raging.
And he’s also determined that he won’t be sad, or cut, or split, or harmed in some way that is bewildering and lodged in his stomach and his lungs and in his face — but mainly in his stomach, in this emptied place where he had a stomach. Those feelings would be bad, so instead he is fully and hopelessly raging. He claws his fingers into the pebbles and gritty damp and he is never going to cry, never going to be the boy who has to leave here and not come back, lose this and then have to remember it, never going to be the boy who was stupid and let this in and loved it, who made plans.
Instead, he will be the boy who climbs down the ropes into his secret, into his perfect place and makes sure, before everything changes, that he is changed first. He has decided that he will be somebody else. He is going to lie here until he gets faster than death, until he is nothing but velocity. He is going to summon his future so powerfully that it will weather the cliffs in moments, boil their crystals, shock their strata until they break. The day when he steps from the harbour to the boat, the day when he walks to another new school, the day when he gathers his mother’s clothes and folds them, tidies her away and finds he is only thinking of whether he’ll make a sandwich when he’s done — those times will have passed him, hardly touched him, and he will be grown smoothly older, will be fine. Before he stands up again, brushes off the sand from his adult self, he will have gathered powers, dignities and skills — he will be a man and complete.
This is his wish. He believes it so hard that his arms shake and he feels sick and, if the world were fair, his efforts ought to be rewarded.
The boy’s breath speeds, is shallow, injured and animal. He frowns. Sandflies bounce and cloud, closed anemones shine like blood clots in shadowed fissures, the whole shoreline seethes mildly with thoughtless life. He puzzles on, leans against nature, needs it to give.
An hour passes, more.
The boy keeps on. He is a determined person.
But in the end he is tired and thirsty and not altered and the evening is coming and with it the tide and, because he does not want to drown, the boy eases himself back through to the Pot and stands for a while where the late sun is prying amongst the rubble and he braces his feet and then yells his name. He screams it. He intends the word to catch and stain somewhere, to hide itself away for later, like a spell. Then he grabs hold of the rope and begins to pull his body up.
He knew his intentions would fail him, but they were all he had.
He was right about this, though — it is much easier to climb.