May 18, 2022
This rollicking adventure set in gold rush America features an unforgettable protagonist
“‘My name is Yip Tolroy & I am mute. I have made not a sound since the day of my birth, October 2nd, 1815.” So begins Paddy Crewe’s ambitious, cinematic debut novel set during Georgia’s gold rush in a semi-mythic American south that recalls both Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Faulkner’s Light in August. Purporting to be the written account of Yip’s adventures narrated from the comfort of later life, it explores a society in flux, one about to turn its back on religion and embrace greed and individualism. It’s also a rollicking, page-turning wild west adventure, populated by a cast of arresting grotesques, with luminous imagery and an unforgettable protagonist.
When Yip’s father mysteriously disappears, his fierce, gun-toting mother opens Tolroy’s Store in Heron’s Creek and sets her son to work. At 14, he’s just 4ft tall and hairless, from what we assume to be alopecia. The pain of his mutism is well expressed in affecting arias: “How can a man live without his voice, O this was the question what begun to haunt my every waking & sleeping minute.” His future looks bleak until a retired doctor teaches him to read and gives him a slate on which to write. This single means of communication is the tool that emancipates Yip, one that travels with him through his picaresque adventures after he embarks on a disastrous night expedition prospecting for gold: “I too turned my heart away from God & took a turn down the Road to Ruin.” Continue reading...
Feb 17, 2022
This beguiling novel gets inside the experience of twinship as a brother and sister face the prospect of separation
Twins are everywhere in fiction at the moment, from Brit Bennett’s bestseller The Vanishing Half to Claire Fuller’s Costa award-winning Unsettled Ground. The challenge for any novelist, of course, is not merely to use twins as an off-the-peg plot device, but to capture the existential experience of growing up in exact parallel to a sibling, or, in the case of identical twins, being the genetic double of another human being. As a twin myself, I’d say Renée Branum’s riddling debut, Defenestrate, gets very close to a true depiction, as Marta and Nick attempt to individuate from each other – first in Prague, and then in a midwest hospital after Nick falls from a fifth-storey window.
Narrated in short, anecdotal chapters, Marta’s first-person account of the twins’ shared life is perceptive and witty. While the impetuous Nick is infatuated with Buster Keaton, a star who “spent his whole life falling”, Marta is gently protective of her brother, whose homosexuality outrages their “painfully devout” mother; a woman who writes out psalms on notes to place above the twins’ beds. Aware of the strangeness of their living together after college, Marta knows they are “buying ourselves some time” before their inevitable adult separation:
We were our whole world, Nick and I, and there was a kind of splendour in that – contained by each other, two yolks sharing an egg. But there was something in that doubling that made me feel all the more fragile – the two of us poised on a sweet precipice before falling blindly forward into the rest of our lives. Continue reading...
Dec 15, 2021
This Goldsmiths prize-winning romp through austerity Britain is a provocative act of resistance to our morally slippery times
“I’m Sterling. Lost my father to Aids, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservatism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this Sterling heart.” So begins Isabel Waidner’s Goldsmiths prize-winning third novel, which, like its Goldsmiths-nominated predecessor, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, is a seditious headrush of a book; a fresh and provocative act of resistance to our morally slippery times. It’s endlessly associative, bursting with ribaldry and Tory-baiting satire; reading Waidner is like plugging into an electric socket of language and ideas.
When football-shirted, bullfighter-jacketed Sterling is assaulted on Delancey Street, Camden Town, by “six, seven actual bullfighters”, they (as Sterling and all their friends are described) question the motive for the attack: “Is it my fault? Did I elicit the violence … my jacket, too much? … I knew a gay who looked straight like a Gap advert. Got hassle still.” Consulting their bestie, Chachki Smok (“brutal looking, with critical acumen … lives with their mother in the low-rise council block”), Sterling finds comprehensible advice hard to come by. Instead, in a surreal twist, they are arrested for assault of the bullfighters by agents of the state, plunging Sterling into a world that might be described as Kafkaesque had the great Czech author done gags. Continue reading...
Jul 08, 2021
A tender, brutally funny autobiographical novel deals with the aftermath of an accident that leaves the narrator in a wheelchair
In Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she describes her autobiographical debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as the “cover version … a story I could live with”. The truth about her upbringing was too painful to write when she was 25: “I could not survive it.” The reader of Jarred McGinnis’s excoriating first novel might ask whether he chose to treat his own life’s traumatic events in the same fashion. The Coward’s narrator is named Jarred. He’s also American and a paraplegic, as is the author. Did McGinnis need the crucial protective distance provided by fiction?
A partial answer might be found in the book’s epigraph, which is placed above a poignant photo of an unnamed toddler: “The distance between fiction and memoir is measured in self-delusions.” As a key to the choice of form, it’s highly cryptic. But whatever the genre, if The Coward is a cover version, it’s one that sings from its first lines: “When I woke up in the hospital, they told me my girlfriend had been killed. She wasn’t my girlfriend, but I didn’t correct them.” Continue reading...
Mar 19, 2021
A mother battles alcohol dependency in this moving, drily funny Irish novel
Like Masha in The Seagull, Sonya, the heroine of Lisa Harding’s intense and unnerving second novel, is in mourning for her life. Her Chekhovian name seems apt when we learn that “failed actress, failed mother” Sonya once triumphed in productions of Chekhov and Ibsen on the London stage, before finding herself singlehandedly bringing up her four-year-old son Tommy in the Dublin suburbs, battling alcohol dependency. There’s a lot to lament, and even more to rail against, in a novel that becomes a ferocious jeremiad against life’s suffocating forces.
After an eye-watering opening scene in which Sonya leaves her son on Sandymount strand while she takes a swim in her underwear, then returns home to sink a bottle of white wine before blacking out while cooking fish fingers, her father stages an intervention. The result is a stay in rehab, during which she suffers a heart-wrenching separation from Tommy, with no guarantee she’ll regain custody. While resisting the 12-step programme, she’s forced to reflect on how complicit she’s been in her own catastrophe: “I think of all the tall tales I spun in school … Was I, even then, destined for this?” Later, there’s the poignant admission: “I just wish I could do life, in the ordinary sense.” Continue reading...
Feb 10, 2021
An impressive debut collection juxtaposes the quotidian world of the flatshare with historical settings and mythic themes
In George Saunders’ luminously perceptive meditation on lessons learned from the Russian masters, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he suggests a short story should “always be escalating”; that it must ideally adhere to a “ruthless efficiency principle”. Jo Lloyd’s debut collection The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies demonstrates that stories can be compelling in other ways. They can be gestational, digressive, subtly allusive: more a patchwork quilt than a grid-iron system.
These qualities are on show in “The Invisible”, winner of the 2019 BBC National short story award, a fabular, fragmentary tale set in 18th-century Wales, in which new wealth destroys a community. Inspired by an entry in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, it tells of a Caernarvonshire woman who claims that she knows of an invisible family in an invisible mansion. Narrated in the first-person plural, the story’s “we” eventually becomes the voice of the proletariat, delivering an allegory of envy and inequality, where unobserved riches become intolerable in the imagination. Continue reading...
Aug 19, 2020
From Du Maurier to Balzac, cousins can be cruel and exploitative, beacons of sexual yearning, or wealthy benefactors who save the day - and the author’s plot
In Saul Bellow’s short story Cousins, the narrator recalls a formative episode from his 1920s Chicago schooldays: “We were issued a series of booklets: ‘Our Little Japanese Cousins’, ‘Our Little Moroccan Cousins’, ‘Our Little Russian Cousins’, ‘Our Little Spanish Cousins.’ I read all these gentle descriptions about little Ivan and tiny Conchita and my eager heart opened to them. Why, we were close, we were one under it all …” Here, the schoolteacher is of course using “cousins” as old-fashioned racist shorthand for the other; people who might seem alien at first, but with whom you must learn to get along. Related, but different, somehow.
This is largely how cousins have been presented in fiction over the centuries: tied by blood, but perhaps very different in terms of culture and experience. Further sub-categories emerged in the 19th century: the cruel and exploitative cousin, the kind and benign variety, the poor relation, or even the cousin who turns up with an inheritance and saves a family’s finances; a deus ex machina that gets the writer off the hook. Continue reading...
Jul 15, 2020
Hungry, flooded and under surveillance, Britain in 2266 feels the impact of civil war and a climate catastrophe
Winner of the Arthur C Clarke award in 2013, Chris Beckett specialises in breathing fresh life into science fiction tropes. In Two Tribes, he presents a dystopian future in which the grim political and ecological landscapes of 23rd-century Britain are shown as logical consequences of what is happening now.
Set in 2266, the story is narrated by Zoe, an archivist for the Cultural Institute, set up to “reconstruct the past”. When she discovers the 2016 diary of Harry Roberts, an architect, she decides to write a historical novel based on its events. The diary describes the collapse of Harry’s marriage following the death of his two-year-old son from meningitis, and how he finds himself torn between two women: Letty, a London arts administrator; and working-class Michelle, a Norfolk landlady. These two women come to embody the two tribes of the Brexit debate following the EU referendum. Continue reading...
Apr 23, 2020
The illicit affairs of a Republican congressman and a 19th-century taxidermist are mirrored across the centuries in an ingenious political satire
Who would have guessed that a satire about an oily Republican congressman, 19th-century taxidermy and a creature so ugly it resembles “a pig screwed by a donkey” would be the perfect tonic for testing times? This is what Jessica Anthony’s insouciant and ingenious novel delivers in fewer than 192 achingly funny pages.
When Alexander Wilson starts his re-election campaign for the first congressional district in Virginia, he ends his secret gay relationship with charity fundraiser Greg Tampico – only for FedEx to deliver a mysterious package to his door. It contains a giant stuffed aardvark, a gift from Tampico that could link the two men and thus possibly end Wilson’s career. While driving to dump the creature, he is stopped by a Democrat traffic cop eager for retribution. The result is an excruciating political farce. Continue reading...