Book review: Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner

At the start of May, I read Alan Warner’s novel, Kitchenley 434. In a period where I was finding it very hard to concentrate, I quickly read through this slow book about a man working as housekeeper for a prog rock star. While I loved the book’s pace, this Spectator review by Jon Day took a very different view:

There are some very strange moments in this novel: a six-page disquisition on where to hang a washing line, and 12 pages on the procedure of drawing the house’s curtains (my heart sank when, 70 pages after reading this, I encountered the sentence: ‘Once again it was that time: to commence the drawing of the curtains throughout Kitchenly Mill Race’). It’s a book stuffed with untelling detail: ‘The pump did good work, but it needed frequent maintenance to stop it running rough’; and ‘half the house had been done in modern 13-amp rectangular peg BS1363 plugs and the rest in pre-war round peg’. If this sounds like an interestingly Oulipian experiment in the limits of exhaustive description I can only say that it doesn’t read like it.

While very little happened in the book, there was a great deal of tension. Part of this was wondering if the genre would suddenly switch – the absence of the house’s owner felt like a haunting. Sometimes, the book veered into comedy, but somehow kept everything together.

It was a book that showed rather than told – while the narrator told us things in great detail. Every description increased our understanding of the main character’s personality, making the reader unsure whether to trust him or not. Nothing needed to happen, rather the joy was in the details, in experiencing someone else’s consciousness.

One of the things I love about a good novel is how how every little detail, every word builds towards the setting. It reminds me of fractals, how each detail is a smaller-scale representation of a larger image.

This was an odd book, but incredibly fulfilling.

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