New year, new faces
Francesca Carington on the best new debut novels, from a thriller in Trinidad to high-jinks in Montmartre
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.
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