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Fresh faces: the best debut novels of 2019 so far

debuts

With the celebrity autobiography dying a slow death, there is perhaps no species of writing more at the mercy of marketing than the debut novel. And so, when it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker would be “curating” books for a new American imprint, SJP for Hogarth, the odd eyebrow was raised at what seemed a not very nimble piece of PR-ing. But, having watched every episode of Sex and the City – three or four times – I always knew Parker had excellent taste. Her second acquisition, Claire Adam’s Golden Child (published here by Faber, £14.99), is proof that, marketing ploy or not, when SJP tells you to read a book, you really should.

Set in Trinidad, where Adam is from, it’s the story of twins, Peter and Paul, whose father, Clyde, works hard to “move up” and give them a better life – or at least, one of them. From birth, the twins are not equal. Peter is the “good baby”, who doesn’t cry or get sick, and Paul is “the other one”, who does. Peter is intelligent enough to go to Harvard one day, if Clyde can somehow get the money to pay for it. Paul is dyslexic, or as his family tells him and he tells others: “I’m slightly retarded. Because I had some problems at birth.” The novel starts with Paul going missing, then tracks back to plant the seeds of the terrible choice Clyde is forced to make between the two boys’ futures.

In essence, it’s a neat, almost allegorical story, reinforced by Clyde’s understanding of a world shaped by opposites: good and bad, rich and poor, safety and danger. “They have two kinds of men in the world, Clyde thinks, two kinds of fathers. One kind works hard and brings all the money home and gives it to his wife to spend on the house and children. The other kind doesn’t do that.” The irony is that Clyde turns out to be the other sort.

Claire Adam Credit: Tricia Keracher-Summerfield

And yet, this simple tale bursts at the seams with life, as Adam’s dexterous prose blurs a fable of black and white into a riot of colour. Alongside passing references to the island’s endemic corruption (police officers trafficking turtle shells; Clyde’s rich relative Vishnu “sorting out” his having to pay taxes) are mesmerising descriptions, reminiscent of Arundhati Roy, of the lush, menacing, unavoidably metaphorical jungle, which threatens ecstasy, madness and run-ins with criminals. These set the scene, but it’s in the playful lists – of enormous meals, groceries, the contents of a rich relative’s house, things that need transporting – that we get the brightest, if most fleeting, glimpses of island life.

Also listed – and normalised in the process – are darker happenings: “road fatalities, domestic murders, missing people being dragged out of the bush in body bags, or their charred remains found in burnt-out cars”. Violence is inescapable, and the escalating catalogue of horrors (a robbery, an attempted murder, a successful murder) leads, inexorably, to the final tragedy. “I was just trying to live my life,” says Clyde. “Just to live a decent life. That’s all. But you see this country? It’s impossible to live a decent life in this country.”

Favouritism and disastrous parenting are also at play in Paula Saunders’s The Distance Home (Picador, £14.99). Saunders (who is married to the novelist George Saunders) grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where much of this Sixties-set story takes place. Slow-burning and contemplative where Adam’s novel is pacy, almost thrillerish, in Saunders’s debut the emotional stakes are nevertheless just as high.

It’s about a brother and sister, Leon and René (though they also have a barely mentioned younger sister, Jayne), and their parents: cattle-rancher Al and his wife, Eve. The fault lines are drawn early: Al’s mother, Emma – and thus Al too – prefers René; Eve doesn’t like Emma and therefore prefers Leon, whom she sees as abandoned by the two; and “the more exiled Leon became, the more Eve looked askance at René”. As the siblings move into adolescence, those intertwined resentments harden and solidify: “tendrils of that early favouritism lived and breathed in everything.”

When the two children take up ballet, René’s dancing is a source of delight to Al, but Leon’s is an embarrassment. Ill-treated by his father, called a freak by the people of their frontier town, Leon grows ever more introverted, stuttering and pulling out his own hair.

Paula Saunders Credit: Chloe Aftel

Inevitably, things get worse. After another of Leon’s humiliations, René “couldn’t help but wonder where all the hurt and anger went after something like that. Did it just disappear as a person grew older, dissolving in a mist of resignation and forgetfulness? Or did it crystallise, so that you carried it with you, building layer upon layer as the years went by, each incident adding to a more solid core of pain, until you came to face the world more rock than flesh?” The reader is left in no doubt that it’s the latter.

This is a very American novel. Not only in its setting at “the geographical centre of the U S of A”, its landscape and harsh climate exquisitely rendered by Saunders in long, perfect sentences, but also in the family’s upward trajectory. Even as Al and Eve are emotionally scarring their children, they’re also working hard for them. The promise of ballet is the same: grit and graft will open doors. And it does: René makes it out of town, but the damage is already done, any hope of transcendence through dance long faded.

Like her protagonists, Saunders and her brother took up ballet. Like René, Saunders went on to dance in New York, while her brother, like Leon, struggled with substance abuse. And, as she writes of her background, “even the smallest whispered prejudices within a family can change a life.”

Teenagers growing up in a remote spot in the mid-20th century – this time a small island off the coast of Scotland – is also the premise of short-story writer Angela Readman’s first novel. Something Like Breathing (And Other Stories, £10) is about two teenage girls, Sylvie and Lorrie, who become neighbours when Lorrie moves with her family to the island after her father loses his job. Lorrie is restless, fun-loving, well-liked; Sylvie is odd, unpopular and frumpily dressed by her overbearing, Tupperware-selling mother. Lorrie is wary of getting too close to Sylvie, lest she catch her unpopularity, and the two ping-pong between distance and closeness.

The island is a claustrophobic place, so it’s important not to be spotted with the unpopular kid or displaying supernatural abilities. Everyone knows everyone’s business, and as the girls are scrutinised, so too do they observe adult goings-on. They see but only half understand – “We were no longer children, nor were we adults”, thinks Lorrie. This is where Readman’s strength lies, in capturing that teenage state of in-between-ness.

The novel is sometimes clumsy in characterisation. Sylvie is saddled with cliché Scottishisms like “wee” and “bonnie”, while other chapters contain mildly irritating character summaries, which counter-productively make the island’s inhabitants feel less like real people and more like an accumulation of adjectives. It is, oddly, Lorrie’s absent father who is best realised. Demoted from insurance salesman to ferryman, he figures little in the girls’ lives, but it is in these ellipses that a broken man comes to life: not cool enough to join the island card game, not man enough to cut down a tree, passed over by a wife who prefers someone else, he’s a quiet, sad presence on the edges of the novel’s action.

Neither sad nor quiet, though, is Pascale Pujol’s Little Culinary Triumphs (Europa, £12.99), a rompy comedy set in Montmartre, Paris, deftly translated by Alison Anderson. The formidable Sandrine Cordier is an employment officer who delights in striking “parasites” off the list but dreams of opening a restaurant. When she’s assigned the case of Antoine, an unemployed eco-warrior professor, she sees an opportunity to make a go of it. Roping in a “colourful” collection of characters, she schemes her way to opening Le Comptoir Bio. Unfolding at the same time is the dastardly plot by a failing Right-wing newspaper called Le Libéral to take down their sexy rival paper – in which Sandrine and her motley crew soon get mixed up.

The novel is breezy verging on breathless, with plenty of exposition, some of it funny, some of it less so. The best parts involve underhand activity, of which there is plenty – from Le Libéral’s financial shenanigans (their “emphyteutic” subscription model means that when subscribers die, their descendants inherit the subscription with no way of cancelling it) to Sandrine’s cunning plots (a campaign of terror to gain an extra room in their apartment building, the casual use of blackmail to get her children internships).

It’s heavy on plot, but light on characterisation. The women are all brilliant and buxom, the men pervy, devious or dumb, except for the good guys, who are nonetheless denied depth in favour of a “thing”: one’s tall, another farty, one an excellent chef and Antoine an environmentalist who looks like Jesus. Still, it’s an entertaining jaunt – just the light Parisian tonic we’ll need for the months to come.

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