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A choice of first novels

Rocco LaGrassa was ‘stout around the middle . . . wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb’. In Salvatore Scibona’s first novel we join this lightbulb of a man on perhaps his darkest day: the day on which the police arrive at his door to tell him his son has just died of tuberculosis in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

The End Salvatore Scibona

Cape, pp.304, 16.99

My Name is Mary Sutter Robin Oliviera

Penguin, pp.384, 12.99

Scissors, Paper, Stone Elizabeth Day

Bloomsbury, pp.256, 11.99

Rocco LaGrassa was ‘stout around the middle . . . wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb’. In Salvatore Scibona’s first novel we join this lightbulb of a man on perhaps his darkest day: the day on which the police arrive at his door to tell him his son has just died of tuberculosis in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

Rocco LaGrassa was ‘stout around the middle . . . wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb’. In Salvatore Scibona’s first novel we join this lightbulb of a man on perhaps his darkest day: the day on which the police arrive at his door to tell him his son has just died of tuberculosis in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

Rocco is the first of five characters whom this stream-of-consciousness novel follows. Over the course of one day, through the heat and activity of 15 August 1953, we also meet an elderly abortionist, a seamstress, a teenager and a jeweller, whose narrative threads cross and increasingly entangle as the day progresses.

To attempt such a book is a bold move; not because it is a novel novelistic idea but because it is precisely the opposite. To write a stream-of-consciousness story set over one day immediately invites comparisons with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.


It is a mark of how good a writer Scibona is that he survives such comparisons. Though there are moments when the streams run a little too opaque, there are many more when they are brilliant. For example, when the tubby Rocco answers the door to the police, he is not wearing a shirt. After they have delivered their message he is unsure what to think. Or, as Scibona puts it: ‘His nipples looked uncertainly at his knees.’ Wonderful.

My Name is Mary Sutter examines the consequences of another war: the American Civil War. Set in a time when men were men, women were women and everyone was misogynistic, it follows the struggles of Mary Sutter, a young woman with a strong bone structure and even stronger opinions.

The daughter of Albany County’s finest midwife, Mary has been trained since infancy to follow her mother in this profession. But she does not want to. Instead, she rejects this archetypally female calling in favour of one that is archetypally male: she wants to be a surgeon. Surgeons, however, have other ideas, and Mary’s requests to train — or even to work in a hospital — are repeatedly rebuffed.

Then war breaks out, and along with it mass epidemics of measles, mumps, dysentery and diphtheria. Injured soldiers find themselves being deposited and dismembered in filthy, inadequate hospitals that become a Hieronymus Bosch-like hell. But for Mary, these same hospitals seem like a kind of salvation, as they bring her purpose, activity and, eventually, an apprenticeship.

As this book’s concept and cover (which bears the legend ‘A Courageous Epic; A Fearless Heroine; A Captivating Love Story’) suggest, this is no novel of complicated psychological insight. It is more meticulously researched faction than subtly constructed fiction. Particularly fascinating was the revelation that in this period it was ‘the unwritten rule of assembling armies that a third of their population would be lost to disease within the first month’, and that despite this the Union army had supplied no coffins for its men.

Scissors, Paper, Stone is set around another domestic war: this time, the cold one being waged within the Redfern family. The novel opens with the almost fatal wounding of one of its members, the brilliant Charles, who is bicycling from his west London home when he is hit by a car, an accident which leaves his skull ‘squashed and bruised like overripe red fruit’.

When the police come to break the news to his wife one expects desolation. Instead, her reaction is simply to continue peeling the carrots. After Charles’s fall, the rest of the book divides between looking into the past, to trace the casus belli, and at the present, to examine its casualties. Of course, the Cambridge-educated Redferns are far too well-mannered to mount outright attacks on one another; but the inflicting of pain by more subtle means — the silence of this meal, the disapproval of that dress — is excellently done. Indeed, Elizabeth Day’s observations of a certain sort of middle-class life, from the intimacies of ‘thrown together alliances of university,’ to the mince pies and ‘self-conscious jollity’ of a Salvation Army Christmas concert, are altogether brilliant.

Moreover, the self-restraint of the plot is as impressive as that of the characterisation: when the cause of the family’s un- happiness is finally revealed, it is all the more unpleasant for being so utterly unexpected.


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