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A choice of first novels

As L.P. Hartley noted, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And no more so than during the two world wars, a fact that has provided a rich seam for several debut novelists to mine this summer.

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

As L.P. Hartley noted, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. And no more so than during the two world wars, a fact that has provided a rich seam for several debut novelists to mine this summer.

In Mark Douglas-Home’s puzzler The Sea Detective (Sandstone Press, £17.99), the tidal pull of a long-gone drama creates a psychological undertow for its hero Cal McGill. As the novel opens, Cal is on the run after covertly planting arctic flowers in Scottish ministers’ gardens as a subtle protest against the administration’s environmental policy. Cal is an oceanographer, skilled in the mapping of briny mysteries, logging sinister flotsam and jetsam through analysis of currents and shipping routes. His obsession with the secrets held by the nation’s watery depths derives from the fate of his grandfather, Uilleam, during the second world war. Uilleam was accidentally swept overboard from a minesweeping trawler. At least that’s the official line. Cal’s maritime charts tell another story.

Cal’s amusing political altercation is shelved by the police in return for his help investigating the murder of a teenage Ind-ian girl whose body has washed up on the Scottish shores. Douglas-Home expertly balances the introduction of a new kind of eco-sleuth, the awful realities of the sex-slave trade and an intriguing case of yesterday’s crimes rising to the surface like doom-laden driftwood.

The ripple effect of wartime failures also lies at the heart of Jamie Ford’s The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Allison & Busby, £12.99). The experience of Japanese-American citizens caught stateside in the wake of Pearl Harbor has become a dusty footnote to the conflict. However, Ford deftly pulls off a Hollywood-worthy romance from the files, one anchored to a true event. The titular hostelry is Seattle’s Panama Hotel, the gateway to the city’s Japantown. In 1986 a horde of possessions of Japanese families interned in the 1940s was discovered in the hotel’s basement. This moment becomes the window through which we witness the struggle of Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe, a Chinese boy and Japanese girl, who weathered the tornado of intolerance.

Ford has a keen eye for the difficulties of youth and the struggles inherent in a cultural hot-pot. While the world rages, young Henry has to handle the ordeal of jook soup and duck egg preserves in addition to the onset of adolescence. He also has to wear an ‘I am Chinese’ badge to differentiate him from the enemy. Friendship, this book illustrates, is an early victim of such times. This is an entertaining and often illuminating tale that no doubt will be appearing at a cinema near you soon.

Also drawn from the home front diaries of the second world war, this time in Britain, is Kate Lord Brown’s rip-roaring The Beauty Chorus (Corvus, £16.99). Giles Whittell’s recent study Spitfire Women of World War Two told the forgotten escapades of the Air Transport Auxiliary, the band of sisters who ferried fighter planes to the active squadrons. Brown has thrown a fictional coming-of-age saga into the fray. Dazzling debutante Evie Chase is 20 and keen to do her bit. Eschewing her wealthy home life, Evie pitches in and jumps into the cockpit to fuel a novel that covers the popular literary terrain of tragedy, romance and fortitude. The research is played light, and as a result the book soars as if it has a pair of Merlin engines strapped to its covers.

From a dramatic bird’s eye view to a coy circuitous take on love, war and camaraderie. 13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro (Headline Review, £12.99) peaks into the life of Louise Brunet, a plucky veteran of both wars and a bit of a secretive hussy to boot, using a Russian doll configuration in which an American academic in present-day Paris is given a box of Louise’s knickknacks by his secretary. The multi-layered process of discovery for the reader includes photographs of the objects and a website in which you can explore Louise’s house and google the map of the arrondissement.

The use of paraphernalia as plot mechanism is a particularly Gallic trope, reworked in French fiction from Amélie to Sebastian Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement. What Shapiro achieves is the tricky ploy of questioning the subjective nature of research in a particularly postmodern manner while entertaining us with an engaging heroine. Such a clever structure provides a nifty bridge to Hartley’s foreign country.

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