Emancipation of B, The

Emancipation of B, The

He had come here not to die, but to live!


B is not a child of his time. As an outsider, he hides his secrets well. Freedom is all he dreams of. But when it comes at last, it is in the most unexpected way – and at a considerable cost.


A book which doesn't finish after the last page It doesn't. You keep thinking about it, and it would be a good one for Reading Groups. The ending is not satisfactory, or is it? Clearly the author intends it to be so for B. Interesting for practitioners of Buddhism. ~ crispy, amazon

I bought this because I know and like the author, Jennifer, so wanted to support her work. My plan was that I would be nice about it on GoodReads if liked it but keep quiet about it if I thought it was rubbish. What was I not expecting was to love it but I did. This book is amazing. I was genuinely hooked from the first page. Most authors if their plot, as this book does, revolved around a modern-day hermit, would make the said hermit mad or bad - or probably both. But Jennifer's B is neither; he's someone who is fulfilling a lifelong desire for complete solitude. The story focuses on how solitude enables him to truly know himself and to truly understand his life. However, it is also reassuringly realistic. B struggles with the lack of contact with others and, as you might expect, with the sheer boredom of it all. As an introvert, I've often want to shut the world out - in fact, today, I opted for staying at home by myself to read this book rather than go to a social event where, gasp, I might have to speak to people. Therefore, it was fascinating to read something that explores the idea of total solitude and, more importantly, how it wasn't necessarily a terrible thing. I am know I biased because I consider Jennifer a friend (with a lowercase f; she'll get the reference), but I think this book probably would have been nominated for award had she'd been more of a "name". She's known as author in Quaker circles and is known for work as a literary agent, but it's a shame she's not better known as a novelist in more general circles. Her work is really interesting and deserves more recognition. ~ Dawn Powell, Goodreads

Universalist rarely carries reviews of novels but we are justified in making an exception for this work. It is a first novel by an author well known in Quaker circles for her writings on life and spirituality and it is likely to appeal to our readers for several reasons. It can be read as a psychological study, a spiritual journey or just a story about a rather unusual man lacking in many of the qualities that others take for granted. The principal character is B, always known only by the initial of his name. We are told the story of his early life, his family and forays into the world of work. His innate withdrawn character makes for difficult relationships at home, school and elsewhere. He is a misfit and feels himself to be such, even more so after an accident leaves him physically disabled. He sees people as difficult but still retains a strong desire to define himself in his own terms. 27 His need to seek solitude comes to dominate his life and we follow his efforts to live as an urban hermit. Life for misfits is not easy and one of book’s strengths is the description both of B’s tribulations and those of his only helper, a well-educated migrant whose appeal for asylum has been rejected and who is now living illegally on the margins. We feel for B as we follow the details of his daily life and musings. Most of us could not endure a life of total solitude and reflection. We are nevertheless fascinated by those who have chosen to follow that path. Something in the human psyche is attracted - and also repulsed - by the idea of leaving humdrum affairs for a different sort of fulfilment. We have many examples, short term such as Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, or rather longer such as the three years, three months and three days of a Tibetan retreat, and other instances of ascetics living for decades in a mountain cave. Most accounts have a religious background. Interestingly, B has no formal religion. He rejected his mother’s form of Christianity and, although he has been influenced by Buddhism and learnt to meditate, he has no formal allegiance there. His desire to be a hermit springs from an internal impulse which the author explores in an engaging and convincing way. As a good book should, it makes us reflect on the variations in human character. This is a carefully crafted story of a man who would be regarded in many circles as inadequate or even problematic. Certainly he does not score highly on social skills. But he comes vividly alive on the page as someone who suffers, who has no malice, and who engages our empathy even though at first sight he may seem unattractive. The publishers say of their books that once you pick them up you will not want to put them down. This is true! The reader identifies with B and his difficulties and is on tenterhooks to know what happens to him next. This is surely the sign of a tale successfully told. Thought-provoking and a good read! ~ Dorothy Buglass, The Universalist

This is the most satisfying of 'personal journey', finding-oneself books! Unusual and compelling but also delicately and extremely sensitively told. Nothing gives away the denouement and so it's a page-turner in a very real sense. ~ Katharine L, Amazon

When I was a student of literature and theater, one of the important rules about characters was that they change over the course of the drama. Another was that the novelist or playwright must create a character that the audience will care about. Sometimes that means we root for them, and sometimes it means we want to see them caught and stopped. Either way, we care. In this slim novel, the character B is almost the only one we see, and he is usually alone. Oddly enough, I felt mostly curiosity about him, yet quite eager to keep turning the pages to see what he would do next. He does change (hence the title), but the reader gets a definite sense that it’s only the beginning. This novel is a testament to inward attention, as the odd character of B can only reach emancipation by going into and through practices of intense stillness. It would not surprise me if he declared that the Light had let him see his “thoughts and temptations,” as George Fox said, and that mercy, power, and strength “came in,” in Fox’s words again. Emancipation sounds like an apt word for the process. ~ Karie Firoozmand, Friends Journal

Compelling and wise A strange yet compelling book that addresses some big topics in its relatively small compass. With its very small cast of characters, it deals with the subject of loneliness and has much to say about living with disability and pain. It is also about the search for meaning in one’s life, and the solace and sense of purpose that a spiritual search brings. And it is about our inescapable sense of being human, the need for companionship and the ties that drive us to help those who are also suffering. Above all, however, it looks at the way in which ideas can dictate our very being, leading us to make drastic life choices. It also has some very useful observations on the practice of meditation! Very well written, the story gradually draws the reader into the diminishing physical world (but expanding spiritual world) of B. As the focus moves ever inwards, the intensity of B’s observation and questioning of its meaning increases. A very wise book, highly recommended! ~ D. Waite, Amazon

A strange yet compelling book that addresses some big topics in its relatively small compass. With its very small cast of characters, it deals with the subject of loneliness and has much to say about living with disability and pain. It is also about the search for meaning in one’s life, and the solace and sense of purpose that a spiritual search brings. And it is about our inescapable sense of being human, the need for companionship and the ties that drive us to help those who are also suffering. Above all, however, it looks at the way in which ideas can dictate our very being, leading us to make drastic life choices. It also has some very useful observations on the practice of meditation! Very well written, the story gradually draws the reader into the diminishing physical world (but expanding spiritual world) of B. As the focus moves ever inwards, the intensity of B’s observation and questioning of its meaning increases. A very wise book, highly recommended! ~ D. Waite, Amazon

I really enjoyed this book as a journey of self discovery, reflection, meditation and intrigue. I empathised with the solitaryness and the need for connection of B. I too was a bit surprised by the ending but along the way enjoyed the attention to detail of the (limited) surroundings and the family dynamics and self worth issues explored. I was most satisfied with the ending of the novel that represented for me a significant beginning. An interesting read that holds attention and provokes thought and self exploration. ~ Jen Cothier, Amazon

A gem It has been a long time since a novel captured my imagination in the way that this one has. I find myself reflecting on the main character, and experiencing 'I wonder what B would make of this?' moments. It's as though I've found an ally in B, and he continues to live in my heart and mind. I found the writing beautiful; subtle yet so powerful. What a gem. Highly recommended. ~ E. Duffield-harding, 12 November

This book was such a pleasant surprise! It made me realize I have a 'B' living inside me too, and that probably all of us have. Jennifer made me like 'B', which in it takes talent, and by the - lovely unexpected - ending I loved him. ~ Melita Harvey, Amazon

A wonderful book which stays in the mind long after reading. Clearly based on personal experience of stillness, silence and solitude. But I'm longing to know what happened next! ~ Beth Allen, Amazon

A study in male isolation and change, I found it elegantly written and a interesting portrait of an odd man, an odd portrait of an interesting man. Slowly he chooses to withdraw from others in the heart of the city, but something comes along to break him from his isolation. ~ Stephen Cox, Amazon

The story is told entirely from B’s point of view and readers who become absorbed will find themselves becoming an awkward creature, all at sixes and sevens with the world, categorised as shy, odd and uncommunicative. The story encompasses B’s life from childhood through to adulthood as he struggles to know himself and make sense of his place in the world. Throughout the book I had the sense that B did not like himself any more than he liked others, and that his opinion of humans in general was that they were a pretty unlikeable species. This tempted me to dislike B in return but although I didn’t warm to him I found his story intriguing as he lays out his plans to withdraw from the world. He makes it clear that his desire to be a hermit is not triggered by a spiritual calling but by a desire for utter isolation. A physical isolation that chimes with the inner isolation he feels and which he believes will lead him to a state of peace. Through stripping away the trappings of everyday life B is exploring the purpose of living, the meaning of life. He locks himself away in two rooms of a boarded up mansion with none of the distractions of work, shopping, media or other people. Indeed his communication with the human race is limited to the weekly writing of a shopping list, which he leaves outside his chosen cell, for the only person who knows where he is. He lives in the moment, savouring each thing he does, placing mindfulness and meditation at the centre of his routine. There is no electric light and he has no clock to judge the passing of time, so he lives in a simple cycle of thoughtful repeated actions. However B begins to discover that no matter how much he can calm or remove external influences there are times when his mind will not co-operate and that even the perfect sanctuary cannot protect him from his own thoughts. Ultimately B’s inner journey leads him to re-evaluate the balance between solitude and the purpose of his being. So what did I make of it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Is it a modern day parable about mankind seeking meaning? An exploration of how our lives are so cluttered that we cannot make connections? Or perhaps a rallying call to the idea that putting ourselves first will ultimately isolate us. Crazily the ending struck me as both uplifting and saddening. I found it absorbing, profound and extremely well written. I cannot truly say that I enjoyed it but I would happily recommend it to others and I suspect that it will stay with me a lot longer than many of the thrillers, adventures or dramas I usually read for pleasure. If you like a thoughtful book I strongly recommend that you get hold of a copy. Four bites on a first reading. I shall give it a year and then reread, it might become a five! ~ Tam, BookEaters

The challenge of fiction Quaker author Jennifer Kavanagh has just published her first novel The Emancipation of B. She talked about it recently at Westminster Meeting House with Geoffrey Durham. Ian Kirk-Smith was there. ‘I am interested in what constitutes loneliness and in the difference between solitude and loneliness.’ Jennifer Kavanagh is best known for a series of thoughtful non-fiction works on subjects such as travel, spirituality, homelessness and aspects of Quakerism. The quote above gave an insight into the link between the author’s non-fiction writing and her first published foray into the world of fiction – the novel The Emancipation of B. Loneliness is an enduring subject of concern. In early March Jennifer was interviewed by fellow author Geoffrey Durham in the library at Westminster Meeting House. The event, which drew a generous and appreciative audience, was engaging and insightful. Geoffrey, a perceptive interviewer, first prompted Jennifer to talk about her early career. She described how, after doing an English degree, she became a managing editor with Penguin Books. After a number of years as a freelance editor, reviewer and broadcaster, she changed direction. ‘Talent spotting’, she explained, ‘was what I really loved and I became a literary agent.’ It was a career that she pursued successfully for eighteen years. She revealed that fiction had, also, always been a passion: ‘I loved fiction as a child. I wrote a novel in my thirties. It was very bad and never published.’ Jennifer admitted that, at the time she wrote it, she ‘didn’t have anything to say.’ She certainly has now. Jennifer then talked about some of the ideas and background to The Emancipation of B. About three years ago, she said, she felt enclosed: ‘I was in a dark place. My novel is not about that experience but it came from that sense of being enclosed. Hopefully, the novel moves from darkness to light.’ The honesty with which Jennifer talked about her writing was extremely appealing. Writing a novel, she admitted, ‘picks something out of every corner of your life. The unconscious plays a much greater part than in non-fiction.’ ‘I do not write sequentially,’ she confessed, when asked about her method. ‘I write a paragraph here and a paragraph there. So, I do a lot of scribbling on buses and in the park and at four in the morning. Sometimes it is just a paragraph or a sudden picture of something. Sometimes I would scribble down a phrase. I re-write and re-write, going over the same thing again and again.’ She stressed the value of allocating quiet time to meditation and reflection: ‘I knew that pondering time is so much more important than writing time. Novels begin not on the page but in thinking. They do not begin in writing.’ There is a difference for her, she said, between writing non-fiction and fiction. This was an engagement with the personal sphere: ‘I do write personal stuff in my non-fiction, but it does not feel as personal as in writing the novel. Even though my non-fiction was personal, the material in the novel mostly comes from a much more vulnerable place. I feel more nervous and self-conscious about it. It is like an accompaniment that inhabits you.’ In writing the novel, she explained, she had taken a very different approach from writing non-fiction: ‘I consciously had to let go of discipline. I had to let it happen when it happens and to allow it to form itself. A character is building up, it lives with you, and builds up.’ The open, informal and articulate way in which Jennifer talked about the challenge of writing, and the intelligent probing by her interviewer, produced a fascinating evening. The focus on the process of writing, rather than on the content of her novel, was illuminating – leaving everyone, as I was, intrigued to read the creative legacy of her struggles. Indeed, it did just that, with me, and the effort was rewarded. ~ Ian Kirk-Smith, The Friend

This book has depth and layers to it that one may not expect in short book. By withdrawing from the world around him to live a monastic life, the protagonist has the revelation that what he needs is something very different. This is a very well written book. (5 stars) ~ Heather Martin, Amazon

This is the enthralling story of B, a lonely and unloved child who dreams of living the life of a hermit but soon realises that monastic life is not for him. He achieves his dream in a sad and rather bizarre way and is finally able to discover what he really needs from life. The ending is both unexpected and satisfying. This book is Jennifer Kavanagh's first venture into fiction, although she has published many non-fiction books and articles, and this is reflected in the directness of her prose. There are no stylistic diversions - no sub-plots, few minor characters - and the reader focuses directly on B as gradually, layer by layer, his perceptions of himself change and he comes to accept and respect his true nature. I loved this book - it spoke to something in me - and I was torn between not being able to put it down and not wanting it to end! ~ Anne THornton, Amazon

This book is a real gem, I loved it! From the initial pages I wasn't sure whether I was beginning a ghost story or possibly a crime novel with a slightly disarming stalker. The cover suggests it could be either but this novel is not what it seems on so many levels. The central character is 'B' whose life seems out of sync with his family and the emptiness of the modern urban world. He feels more in tune with animals, especially his dog. It is hard to review this book without giving to much away but suffice to say that you will be drawn into B's world and his desperate search to find his real place in or out of modern life. It is at times gripping, empathetic, sensitive, full of real insights and a fantastic read. (5 star) ~ P.E.J, Amazon

This is Jennifer Kavanagh's first foray into novel writing and she has created a detailed, sensitive picture of a young life, building up layer upon layer until we almost begin to breath alongside the central character. While I was reading I become intensely aware of the author's concern for 'B' and the outcome of his story became vitally important to me too. B's journey is not an easy one but he is not afraid to use the most radical of means to confront his inner spectres. Tension builds gradually and this is certainly no light hearted romp, but neither is it in any way heavy – the writing style is pleasingly direct and honest. At the end you will rejoice! (5 star) ~ L.P.C, Amazon

This is one of the most original books I've ever read. It's very focused on the interior of the protagonist, B, with very little dialogue, and not much actually happening. This was challenging, but something kept me going. It was gripping and I wanted to know what happened to him. The ending was satisfyingly powerful, with a strong message about what being human means. (4 star) ~ Hayley Gullen, Goodreads

… It focuses on B, a character I found myself, as an introvert, relating strongly to, as he figures out what sort of life he wants to lead and how to get there in a world not made for him. As his world becomes filled with mindfulness you become mindful of each word you’re reading. It’s a great read between action packed page turners if you’re looking for something that is a little different and a little spiritual. It deals with death, family, and becoming an adult. It also tackles racism gracefully, something I found very refreshing considering my recent reads. This is definitely a book that came at the right time for me and I was sad to see it end the way it did. It ended solidly, that’s not why I’m sad, but it had me wishing there was another chapter just to see what happened. I’m a very curious person. I can’t think of a better ending that would highlight B’s values so well. … I know many prefer books that are more external conflict and adventurous, whereas The Emancipation of B focuses very internal and has a mindfulness pacing that isn’t commonly found. ~ Book Girl, Goodreads

Absorbing slow burn I was caught up in this slow burn absorbing story. Felt accurate in its physical and psychological detail and the ending was a whoosh of energy. Lovely understated prose ~ aes, Amazon

An extraordinary emancipation The observation and documentation of this man’s inner and outer life is meticulous, and fascinating. It reminds me of Stoner, the quietly-unfolding 20th century novel by John Williams whose re-issue became a runaway bestseller a couple of years ago; also of the parable novels of José Saramago. … I commend The Emancipation of B to anyone who wonders about the meaning of life, and who wants to travel beyond self-help books and inspirational tracts and embark on an extraordinary journey of imaginative exploration. (the rest of the review gives too much away!) ~ Alison Leonard, Quaker Voices

As a child, B had two conflicting dreams; one to be a knight defending the vulnerable; the other to be a hermit living in complete solitude. Something of a social misfit, B manages to engineer a cell of sorts from which he retreats from urban life, discovering a kind of freedom he hadn’t anticipated. Cut off from demands of daily living, B desires to explore ‘a different dimension’. Using Buddhist practices, he discovers ‘an emptiness, a letting go.’ The reader is drawn into B’s present, intrigued by the way he spends days unregulated by pressures of time and responsibility. Simultaneously, we discover B’s past as he himself comes to terms with it, particularly his home and family life, with all its tensions, hurts and rivalries. As the layers of his life are stripped back, B’s self perceptions change. This is a beautifully written novel with a haunting central character. As I became more absorbed by B, I became fearful for him; at the end, wanting to know what might happen next. On reflection, the story challenges us to reconsider more honestly our relationships with people and with the world around us, to turn away from the frenzy of contemporary living towards a simplicity of being. ~ , Magnet magazine

A superb book which speaks truly to an outsider I approached this novel from a position of unknowing. I am incredibly glad I bought it and read it (I don't always read the books I buy!) It ticks many boxes for me:I love London novels, I have been an outsider most of my life, I am on a journey to the world - as is B. Yes, it's probably a niche book but personally I found it a superb record of a journey to wholeness and connection. ~ , Amazon

In an age that overwhelmingly favours extraversion, Jennifer Kavanagh has done a quietly defiant thing, to craft a genuine adventure of the inward life. To outward eyes a 'sad loner', its hero resists all cliches and his journey holds us, not least because his consciousness is rendered in prose as crisp and calm and spare as poetry. ~ Philip Gross, winner of the T S Eliot Poetry Prize 2009, Wales Book of the Year 2010, National Poetry Competition

This novel is a real achievement. The characters are all very real and alive, but especially "B". It is as if you portrayed in him something that lives in everyone, the stranger in society, family, a need to escape... Wonderfully written and really engrossing reading. The novel's real achievement for me is that you portrayed the heroic journey in the most unlikely of circumstances, in the ordinary, urban situation, of a man who would seem to most a failure and yet, in the end, was the victor. ~ Lucinda Vardey, author of The Flowering of the Soul and God in all Worlds

A life-affirming celebration of the human spirit in adversity. I didn’t think at first I was going to enjoy Jennifer Kavanagh’s novel The Emancipation of B, with its Eeyorish square peg who becomes a recluse after a disabling accident. But, magically, I was won over – even changed – by it. ~ Stevie Krayer, Poet, author of New Monkey

A hymn to mindfulness and a moving meditation on our conflicting ideas of home in a novel that explores one solitary man's efforts to find sanctuary in the most unlikely of places. ~ Paul Wilson, author of The Visiting Angel

I think the book is wonderful. Vivid and absorbing and thought-provoking… [B] is an odd character, yes, but I found myself really caring what became of him. Chapeau, as they say in France! ~ Tony Peake, author of A Summer Tide, Son to the Father, Seduction and a biography of Derek Jarman

I finished the book over the weekend, and was completely hooked all the way through. You are a marvellous writer, observer, and guide. You said the narrative would reveal itself slowly, which it did, but to have kept the reader’s attention when sometimes we were witnessing quite humdrum events in quite ordinary lives, is a tribute to your skill. You simply had to turn the page! …Your descriptions of the nuances of childhood and family dissonance are absolutely spot on. I think the book is both haunting and memorable and I salute you for it. ~ Laura Morris, literary agent

Jennifer Kavanagh
Jennifer Kavanagh Jennifer Kavanagh worked in publishing for nearly thirty years, the last fourteen as an independent literary agent. In the past fifteen year...
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