Alcoholics may have lives full of catastrophe and drama, but as fictional characters they're pretty limiting. A heavy drinker will come to one of only two possible fates: Either he dries out and stays that way, or he destroys himself, though the speed with which he achieves the destruction does vary. As a result, novels about alcoholics lean toward either tales of redemption or long, grinding descents into the gutter. The first kind of story can come across as proselytizing and the second tends to be an unremitting bummer.
It wouldn't be fair to give away how A.L. Kennedy's "Paradise" ends, but in this case the journey, not the destination, is the main point. Kennedy, a professed teetotaler, has crafted a horrifying rhapsody to the ghastly splendors of addictive drinking. Her narrator, a misanthropic Scottish screw-up named Hannah Luckraft, may drift in and out of coherence, but one thing is always clear to her: "I do love liquids."
Being endowed, however improbably, with Kennedy's own remarkable eloquence, Hannah is able to sing the glory of liquids as Homer sang of Achilles' rage and Whitman sang of himself. The thick stream pouring into a glass is "like a muscle perpetually flexed and reflexed, the honey-colored heart of some irreversibly specialized animal." And that's just apple juice, lovely mostly because it reminds her of stronger stuff. You should hear her on the topic of a bottle of Old Bushmill's ("the rounded corners and the dapper weight and the elegant cut of the label ... a long, slim doorway to somewhere else") and the beauty of the shelf behind a bar ("the tall gleam of charged glass, the winking ranks of spirits, the delicious confusion of lights and shades and labels").
Why does Hannah -- the child of kind, respectable parents and the older sister of Simon, an upstanding but increasing fed-up doctor -- drink? The answer is not immediately forthcoming, but you could say that she's an example of the old maxim about alcohol being both the cause and the remedy for most of mankind's problems. At some (very early) age, she drank, whereupon she did things that made her feel so bad she had to drink to forget them, which led to more unthinkable behavior and so on. "I am enough to make me miserable," she laments. "I am too much to bear. Other people get help, they're supported, they have obvious injuries. Other people don't have to be me."
At the boozy center of "Paradise" lies Hannah's romance with Robert Gardener, a dentist who shares her thirst. (Wince-inducing suggestions of how his drinking affects his work can be gleaned from what Hannah wearily refers to as his "dental rants.") This affair is an amor fou in the classic sense -- one of them is always dragging the other off the wagon and into a boozy embrace -- but it does seem to be genuine love and the only emotion, besides shame and disgust, that Hannah can manage to fully feel. The question of whether her love for Robert will save or kill her becomes the hinge on which "Paradise" turns.
Only a real alcoholic could testify to how accurately "Paradise" depicts the affliction, but it does make chronic drinking more understandable to those of us who aren't. Having dried out, Hannah finds "my fresh and sober life unrolls about me, revealing a nice, clean, lunar emptiness." For her, alcohol makes so many things -- sex, memory, the company of other people -- not just bearable but possible. "Drink," she says after settling in at her favorite pub, "has trotted in and softened worries, charmed away internal repetitions of unpleasant facts and lifted my attitude those few vital degrees which prevent everybody from dragging their past behind them like a corpse." It's not a pretty choice that Hannah faces -- to learn to live with her past or to let drink turn her into a real corpse, and well ahead of schedule -- but "Paradise" lends the decision, and the befuddled woman who must make it, a dignity she can't manage to believe in herself.