Tom Fleming

A choice of first novels

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American Youth by Phil LaMarche (Sceptre, £12.99, pp. 221) is a sparsely written, penetrating tale of a boy who finds himself in a moral dilemma when he abets the accidental killing of a neighbour. Fourteen-year-old Ted LeClare tries to impress the Dennison brothers by showing them his father’s rifle, but when he leaves the room briefly the brothers squabble over the loaded gun and the elder one accidentally shoots the younger. Ted’s mother coerces him into denying that he loaded the gun, leaving him in a legal and ethical quandary. When he starts high school, moreover, he finds that he has become the poster-boy for a sinister, right-wing group of students calling themselves American Youth. At first Ted basks in the warmth of their attentions, but he is soon repelled by their menace and hypocrisy, finding himself forced to choose between them and the rumblings of his young conscience.

LaMarche is an insightful, technically gifted writer. He makes Ted’s predicament compelling, setting up fascinating conflicts with a minimum of fuss or affectation, and his dialogue is spot on. Most impressive, though, is the novel’s memorable sense of place: Ted’s bleak, recession-hit town, with its half-completed housing projects and ubiquitous ‘For Sale’ signs, reigns disquietingly over the entire narrative.

The young heroes of Richard Milward’s charming Apples (Faber, £9.99, pp. 200) also live in a threatening environment: a Middlesbrough council estate. Eve, a pneu- matic blonde and the coolest girl in school, gets ‘mortalled’ on drink and drugs most nights and feels guilty about having fun in tacky clubs whilst her mother, dying of lung cancer, sits at home; Adam is a barely noticeable virgin with few friends and a violent father who throws a fit when he catches his son in the attic with an open copy of Razzle. In chapters narrated by each in turn, we watch the unlikely pair draw closer together, as Eve, having consorted with too many scallies already in her young life, recognises Adam’s rare goodness.

Milward gives his characters such rich inner lives that it’s impossible not to care deeply about them. We will them towards each other as they negotiate a minefield of unwanted pregnancies, violence, and drug-taking (the title refers to the tiny apples printed on ecstasy pills). The precocious Milward has only recently left school himself, and perhaps it shows in places: two chapters, narrated by a butterfly and a street-lamp, are awkward, even if they show the author’s originality. Regardless, though, Apples is a wonderful book, both funny and endearing.

Joanna Kavenna’s first book was The Ice Museum, an idiosyncratic study of the legendary northern land of Thule. Inglorious (Faber, £11.99, pp. 273) is her debut novel, and an equally ambitious work. It centres on Rosa Lane, a thirtysomething journalist who, soon after the death of her mother, chucks it all in and sets off on a quest for a more profound understanding of the universe. Except that she doesn’t go very far: mostly she wanders around West London, foisting herself on friends, writing quirky lists of things to do (‘Get a job/ Wash your clothes/ Distinguish the various philosophies of the way’), and mulling over her ex-boyfriend’s duplicitous marriage to another woman. Eventually, having whirlpooled into extreme emotional (and financial) disrepair, she finds a tentative stability within herself — ‘aware of the abyss, but not staring straight down into it’.

Vulnerable, perspicacious, funny, literate, Rosa is an unforgettable narrator, stumbling around on borrowed heels, musing on Heraclitean notions of flux. Her tone lies somewhere between those of Bridget Jones and Philip Larkin. Kavenna writes with great elegance and has a delicious grasp of comic bathos; although she occasionally over- indulges her heroine’s self-absorption, the quality of the prose never dips.

Children of the Revolution by Dinaw Mengestu (Jonathan Cape, £12.99, pp. 228), is about Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant in America. Having fled the country of his birth at the age of 16, when his father was fatally beaten in front of him by revolutionary militia, he now owns a dilapidated general store in a scrawny neighbourhood in Washington DC. He spends most evenings there, with his friends Joseph and Kenneth, both Africans themselves, drinking whisky and playing a nebulous game that involves detailing various African dictatorships. It is a game that has sustained them over the years.

When Judith, a white woman, and her mixed-race daughter Naomi, renovate one of the grander houses in the neighbourhood, Sepha strikes up a friendship with them. But the locals see her as a symbol of unwanted gentrification, and her stay there seems doomed; Sepha, meanwhile, struggles to hold on to the tenuous romantic link between them whilst configuring his own sense of belonging.

The narration constantly switches timeframes, forcing us to share Sepha’s sense of displacement. The novel is illuminated by our protagonist’s memories of Ethiopia — the death of his father is a particularly powerful moment in the book — and several wry vignettes involving Joseph and Kenneth in which the ambivalence of each man’s feelings about their African homelands is revealed. Sepha’s listlessness — he is a man ‘stuck between two worlds’ — and the general air of mournful circumspection do, at times, sabotage the narrative’s dramatic impetus, but otherwise this is an impressive, moving debut.