Laura Freeman

A choice of first novels | 20 April 2017

Danger lurks in New York, rural Picardie and deep in the Idaho woods — and makes for dark, thrilling reading

A choice of first novels | 20 April 2017
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Emily Ruskovich

Chatto, pp. 308, £


Rick Gekoski

Canongate, pp. 299, £

Behold the Dreamers

Imbolo Mbue

4th Estate, pp. 382, £

The End of Eddy

Édouard Louis

Penguin, pp. 192, £

If you go down to the woods today… That is the starting point for Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, who grew up on Hoodoo mountain in the Idaho panhandle. A family — mother Jenny, father Wade, daughters May and June — leave their little house in the big woods and drive a pick-up truck to a clearing where they chop birch wood, squabble and drink lemonade that attracts the flies. You want them to find something wonderful there. A teddy bears’ picnic. A magic faraway tree. A Piglet. But this is Idaho, not our friendly day-tripping woods.

Nature is vast and hostile. In winter the house is cut off for months at a time, the paths too steep for a snowplough. In summer you sweat and sweat and tempers frazzle. Leave the windows open and the beetles get in. Then the spiders, hornets, horseflies, mice, garter snakes and katydid bush crickets. In the night, coyotes scream. Families make homes in trailers and on lonely farms, but there is a sense that man is only one howl away from wildness. When the heat and flies and jealousy and suspicion become too much for Jenny, she does something awful and irreparable.

Ruskovich moves through time: the day in the woods, the months and years before, the aftermath. Objects are returned to again and again as we piece together the evidence: the Styrofoam lemonade cups, the deerskin gloves to protect against splinters, the hatchet.

It is two parts Donna Tartt, one part Daphne du Maurier. Ruskovich shares the former’s unnerving knack for isolating her characters — on a New England campus, in small-town Mississippi — and the latter’s for psychological suspense and hauntings. Wade’s second wife Ann is obsessed with the day in the woods, sitting alone in the truck trying to understand what Jenny did. Shades of the second Mrs de Winter.

It is a strange, uncanny novel, bewitching and heady. Grief becomes something as limitless as the woods, and Jenny and Wade in their separate ways — guilty, not guilty, tortured, unknowing — are felled by it.

Grief is the consuming emotion of Darke by Rick Gekoski, an antiquarian bookseller, writer and academic in his seventies. Dr James Darke is a retired schoolteacher and widower, laid so low by loss that he wants no part in the world. He hires a carpenter to change the locks, take away the door knocker and stop up the letter box. He disconnects the phone, deletes his email account, and has Waitrose deliver to the door. ‘I will never go out again,’ he pledges:

If I am incapacitated by severe illness or heart attack, I will abjure the emergency call, suffer and die. If the house catches fire, I will go down with it, perhaps put on some smothering and sizzling music — Stravinksy perhaps, can’t think what else he’s good for — and smoke and barbecue like Joan of Arc.

For company Darke has the canon: ‘fucking T.S. Eliot’; ‘that frigid snitbag Virginia Woolf’; Chaucer, Shakespeare, and his humbugging hero Dickens. He used to teach the boys in his sixth-form class ‘slouching towards Oxbridge’ that literature was everything:

The Church can’t help us, not any more. (I got a visit from our rather aggrieved chaplain the first time I said this, when one of the boys snitched on me.) But good reading of good literature, I insisted, both to him and to my boys, interprets life for us, sustains and consoles us.

He is totally unprepared for the bereavement that no book or poem will soothe. In James Darke, Gekoski has created a powerful, raging voice. All that counselling stuff about finding joy in grief, light in darkness, taking one day at a time and cherishing the memories — rubbish. Darke gives you his blessing to swear, hate, wallow, reject help and company, to be selfish and bitter; and only once you’ve got all that out of your system can you pick up Oliver Twist and find a new way to go on.

New life is the theme of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. Not any old life: only an American one will do. This is the American dream, told through the hopes of Jende and Neni, recent arrivals in New York from Cameroon, determined that their son Liomi will have a better future: life, liberty and the pursuit of a law degree.

Jende gets a job as a chauffeur to Clark, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers; Neni as a nanny/maid/run-around for Clark’s trophy wife Cindy and son Mighty. It is 2007. Note the date. When the crash comes, Jende is thrown on the mercy of US Immigration: an American nightmare of court hearings, work permits, Green Cards and waiting, waiting, waiting. Jende takes three jobs in order to pay the rent and his asylum lawyer. His friends, fellow immigrants, who bought white-picket-fence houses on impossible mortgages, are evicted. Mbue asks how much a man can suffer, how low will he crawl to be a US citizen? Is this really better than Cameroon? Than home?

It is a rally-paced read, quick-witted, satirical and, when the dream falters, windingly sad. The bonfire of the Wall Street vanities, eavesdropped on by Jende driving the car between Park Avenue and the Hamptons, is wicked and satisfying.

Eddy Bellegueule, narrator of Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, also dreams of something better. He is a slight, thoughtful, gay child growing up in a working-class village in Picardy where obesity, illiteracy and aggressive masculinity are the norm. He is bullied at school — ‘faggot, fag, fairy’ —and beaten at home.

The book has been a bestseller in France, inspiring much op-ed hand-wringing about National Front voters, such as Louis’s parents, who are unemployed, on benefits and wound up about the number of ‘Ay-rabs’ in the banlieues. It is starkly, viscerally written, and as a reader you feel every blow and humiliation. And it is suffocatingly horrible. The violence, dirtiness, spits and smells are the stuff of the most miserable of misery memoirs. When something nasty happens to the ten-year-old Eddy in the woodshed, I had to put the book down and go out for walk. Too much. The poverty and wretchedness of Eddy’s Picardy make Idaho’s big woods seem unexpectedly beguiling and benign.