Bliss Street by Kris Kenway

by Sarah Tan

11 September 2003


Happiness Is Bliss

In Lebanon, lots of things are done under the table,” he said, as if he were instructing James on how to play blackjack. “Sometimes, they’re done under the table. Under, over—sometimes there is no table because someone took it.
— Ken Kenway, Bliss Street

As testament to the gradual decline of public taste, the Ba Ha Men won the 2000 Billboard Music Award of the Year, taking awards for World Music Artist. Their chart-topping song, memorably entitled “Who Let the Dogs Out” won World Music Album of the Year. How this actually happened is questionable to good taste, but that particular hit received a tremendous amount of airplay on radio stations worldwide, and rendered rooms of clubbing teenagers into barking enthusiasts. Thankfully, the protagonist of Kris Kenway’s new novel, Bliss Street, has better ideas for trends in world music.

cover art

Bliss Street

Kris Kenway

(Sceptre Press)

In Bliss Street, Kenway writes of an ex-music video director, James Hamlyn, who is demoted to selling cell phones after an artistic misunderstanding with his producer. His performance in this new job is impressive to the point of self-loathing. James excels at playing to his customers’ emotions and has a sales record any salesman would admire. However, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, everything that could go wrong does go wrong for James, and he finds himself stuck in Beirut during its civil war, with a long time girlfriend who has decided she prefers to spend her time with more dapper yuppie company.

Unbeknown to him as yet, this is an act of redemption that will save James’ self-esteem from going down the toilet. In the course of Kenway’s novel, the ambitious Maya Hayek rescues James from the sleazy clutches of other greasy British expats, and is the deciding factor for his prolonged stay in Lebanon. This decision leads James to meet a random selection of people who manage to spice up his life, and eventually, make his dreams come true.

Kenway builds his novel, Bliss Street, on the classic themes of boy meets girl, and the pursuit of happiness against all odds. A nosy neighbour, tyrannical boyfriend, lack of funds and national civil war are all hurdles to a happy ending, but as in all “blissful” novels, they’re not enough to stop true love. It is true that the bulk of (dare I say) literature that gets produced each year bears semblance to this subject in some way or other, but writers never fail to come up with some new variation (some to phenomenal success, and others to the $1.99 bin). Bliss Street tends to lean towards the more successful attempts of authorship, not because of original presentation, but because of Kenway’s knack for travel writing.

“Put the Real World back on, You guys suck!” Nadia’s roommate cut in. They ignored her. A Valley girl who had never been to America, she had an American accent learnt form sitcoms, and would surely be disappointed to discover that very few Americans sounded anything like her.”

Bliss Street‘s strongest asset is in the way the setting is described. Kenway captures the chaotic order of Beirut, the madness of its streets and psyche of its people in such language that draws the reader deeper into the rather simple plot. It is his Western glimpse of the East that serves our curiosity for the effects of capitalisation and globalisation on foreign countries. It is in description of pizza franchises and McDonalds, Mercedes Benzes and Counterstrike, mingling with Syrian and Israeli politics, posters of military leaders, refugee camps and prisons that come together to create such a palatable fusion. Without such skill, Bliss Street would surely be lost, branded as another “typical” work of contemporary fiction.

The story itself is cliched and lacks depth. We are not presented the chance to understand the workings of Kenway’s characters—and there are some pretty promising characters that are begging to be given more emotion, more thoughts, and more reason. The characters’ handicap can only be due to the type of the novel being contemporary, easy-reading, crowd-pleasing fiction. There’s an enjoyable book in Bliss Street for leisure readers, but those more familiar with the literary scene would be better served elsewhere. Not to say that Kenway’s book is a failure. There’s just not enough meat to this main course.

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