New year, new faces

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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

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

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