4 debut novels well worth reading

31 January 2017 - 14:58 By Orlando Bird

Exciting releases from first-time authors

1) THE NIX BY NATHAN HILL

Hill's 620-pager, which took him 10 years to write but mostly doesn't feel like it, touches on the 2008 financial crash, the Occupy protests, the 1968 Chicago riots, academic life, small-town life, fad diets, pointless apps - and much else.

 

At the centre of all this is Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a gawky college teacher in his thirties who, besides having a surname that typifies a certain kind of American literary humour, is failing to write a long-overdue novel and throwing most of his energy into an online role-playing game called Elfscape.

2) HOMEGOING BY YAA GYASI

Half the length of The Nix but its historical sweep is roughly four times as wide, examining the twin legacies of colonialism and slavery. It's not downplaying the gravity of these themes to acknowledge that they have already been covered extensively. But Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and grew up in the US, has a different angle.

Homegoing begins on the Gold Coast in the 18th century, and one of its central preoccupations is with how Africans became active participants in the slave trade. Esi and Effia are half-sisters, unaware of each other's existence. Caught up in a squalid bit of local power-broking, Effia is married off to a British officer. An unenviable fate - but Esi's is much worse. She's snatched by a rival village, sold into slavery and eventually shipped to America.

 

Each chapter follows one of the sisters' descendants, shifting between both sides of the Atlantic and ending up - via the Deep South plantations and Civil War-era Baltimore - in present-day California.

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3) FLESH AND BONE AND WATER BY LUIZA SAUMA

A slim but arresting debut about memory and trauma.

Our narrator is Andre Cabral, a middle-aged, Brazilian-born doctor, long settled in London but now on the brink of divorce. When a letter arrives from the old country, smelling "woody, humid, faintly tropical", it seems like a release from his dingy new bachelor pad. But the message is ominous: "I've a lot to tell you. I'll make you wait, just as you made us wait."

 

The story goes back in time, following Cabral's recollections, and we learn about his sheltered upbringing as part of Rio de Janeiro's white patrician class, as well as his relationship with the author of the letter, Luana - his family's empregada (or round-the-clock dogsbody).

Having been instructed by his father not to "f***- around" with her, he goes ahead and does just that. Sauma, whose style manages to be both spare and rich, is clear-eyed about the social and racial divides in Rio.

4) ENGLISH ANIMALS BY LAURA KAYE

Upstairs-downstairs intrigue - with added taxidermy - is a theme in Kaye's uneven but entertaining book.

 

Mirka, a young, gay Slovakian woman, takes a job at a large, respectably run-down country house. Her employers are Richard, a shambling type with an interest in hunting and stuffing animals; and his frustrated wife, Sophie, who's younger and smarter than him. They struggle to pronounce Mirka's name, but both become close to, then dependent on her. Richard discovers she has a knack for taxidermy; Sophie starts an affair with her. - The Daily Telegraph

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