I’ve been thinking about the turn of the year and about what it is that makes reading debut fiction so appealing and have decided that there is a lot of common ground based on the triumph of hope over experience. In the case of the New Year, the resolutions are unbroken and still hold out the glorious promise of self-improvement. In the case of pre-publication debut fiction, the dreams for the author and the book are still intact. On the 2nd January we can all still believe that we will be better, thinner, brighter people and that all the novels that we love will achieve every possible measure of success.
I’m don’t want to dwell on what might happen later on in the year (oh, the heart breaking thought of all those undrunk sachets of miso soup and usold books!) so will get straight on to my favourite debuts from January, February and March.
I resisted The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach for so long. ‘No,’ I cried, ‘I don’t want to read another long American novel. And especially not one about baseball.’ On and on, I said it, lots of people told me it was very good indeed and I trusted them, I just didn’t fancy a long American novel about baseball.
And then, finally, after someone told me the female character was particularly well drawn, I decided to try a page or two. ‘No pressure,’ I said to myself. ‘I don’t have to marry the thing. I’ll read the first few pages and at least I’ll have given it a go.’
Anyway, it is exceptional. I didn’t race through it but sort of gleefully glided. Despite the sports stuff it lacks the aggression that I sometimes get from long American novels, that ‘you just sit there in your chair, little girl, whilst I hit you over the head with words’ feeling. Although we are often in the locker room, or on the sports field this book has no posturing or manly swagger about. It offers a consensual, enlightening experience that I highly recommend. And no, you don’t need to know anything about baseball, and I found I enjoyed all the baseball bits without really understanding anything much of the game.
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles is full of the detailed directives about domestic matters that Oskar leaves for his flat-sitting friend when he goes off to LA to get divorced. The ensuing chaos reads like Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em as if written by Kafka as our haphazard hero rattles disastrously around the unnamed European city. There’s cleaner, a lap dancing club, a piano, and some of it is even about wooden floors. And it carries off the perfect twist, in that after a moment of surprise it all makes perfect sense.
I stayed up all night to read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a story set in the author’s native Alaska about Jack and Mabel and the way their bleak and childless marriage is transformed when they make a little girl from snow. There is something very special going on here in the way that the far away and even fairy tale setting contrasts with the highly familiar emotional territory. I was breathless and on the edge of tears the whole way through. Slightly soppily, I like the fact that the author is a bookseller and dreamt up her ideas whilst shelving books. I hope she becomes deservedly rich and famous.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan transports us to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1914. When an explosion wrecks their ship, newly-wed Grace becomes a widow. Her husband’s last act is to get her on to a lifeboat and she spends the next three weeks exposed to the dual dangers of nature and humanity whilst doing what she can to stay alive. This is a cracking page-turner and I’m still not sure I quite understand the ending so would like lots of people to discuss it with me, please!
Rachel Joyce gives us a different kind of journey in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold has never made much of a mark in life but when he finds out that his old friend Queenie is dying he decides to walk the length of the country to see her. Along the way, we find out why Queenie was so important to him and the other sad secrets of Harold’s life. The more I think about this book, the more that I think it is about the battle between refusing and accepting the knowledge that the people we love might die. It’s always good to find out that a book has broad appeal. I gave this to my Dad who now wants to visit all the towns on Harold’s route and to a colleague who said it made him cry buckets of life-affirming tears. Those kinds of emotional reader responses make my bookseller heart beat gladly.
And finally…And so absolutely not least, even though it is last…
I haven’t felt so excited about a book for a long time
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen is narrated by ten-year-old Judith whose father takes her knocking on the neighbors’ doors to tell them that the world is about to end. As she sits in her bedroom worrying about having her head flushed down the toilet at school she creates a model world, populates it with little pipe cleaner people and starts to believe that she can talk to God. The imagination at work in this novel is extraordinary and the brave, sad sometimes funny voice of Judith has a unique resonance. I absolutely believe in this book and believe that we will all be talking about it next year. I think it will win prizes and sell huge amounts and I want all that to happen because it should, because this author deserves to be read and because this character deserves to be heard, but most of all because I want people, I want you, dear reader, to have the experience of this book.
There is a beautiful taste of it here. The voice is that of the author.
So, those are my favourite debuts for the first three months of 2012. They are a tiny percentage of the amount of books published so it could be that all these books succeed. Well, anyway, at the moment, with no benefit of horrible hindsight, I can imagine them all as the sure things of the future…
(I have taken some of this from the monthly column I do for The Bookseller so if it seems familiar it is hopefully me reminding you of me…)