Christian House

A choice of first novels | 22 July 2009

This year’s summer flurry of debut novels appears to tick all the booksellers’ boxes.

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This year’s summer flurry of debut novels appears to tick all the booksellers’ boxes.

This year’s summer flurry of debut novels appears to tick all the booksellers’ boxes. There’s the headline grabber, the European bestseller, the wartime melodrama and the quirky romancer. Publishers recognise a good thing when they see it.

60 Years Later is a case in point, having already hit the news pages and caused a buzz of expectation (Windupbird Publishing, £7.99). Flirtatiously spun as a sequel to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, its author has unsurprisingly opted for a reclusive nom de plume. The jacket announces the arrival of one John David California. The defendant’s name on the lawsuit swiftly dispatched by the real J. D. is Swedish fan Fredrik Colting. Subtitled ‘Coming through the rye’, the book imagines Holden Caulfield, or ‘Mr C’ as Colting cautiously tags him, as an old man waking up in a nursing home. From this rebirth he journeys through Manhattan’s lanes in search of, well you know Holden, some form of truth. Into this new dawn of the great disenchanted enters the author himself, or rather the original author. Still with me? It all sounds like a cringe-inducing undergraduate exercise, yet Colting is occasionally perceptive. Holden, sorry, Mr C, is realistic in his physicality, sagging ‘like a plucked chicken’. Yet he lacks the necessary shift in mindset to create any real interest. Septuagenarian teenagers are a bit of drag. What makes this book important is that it illustrates a heightened cynicism prevalent in certain areas of the book world where notoriety rules. However, Salinger being a veteran in litigation, one wonders if the only shelving it will receive will be a permanent one.

From the phoney to the real deal. Every few years a continental hit translates into an international success story. Think of Niccolo Ammaniti, Carlos Ruiz Zafón or even, posthumously, Stefan Zweig and Sandor Marai. 2009 heralds the arrival of 27-year-old Italian Paolo Giordano. His The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Doubleday, £12.99) has already won the Premio Strega award back home and deservedly so, for this is a novel of rare acuity and invention. His oddball protagonists, Mattia and Alice, forge a tentative friendship in early adolescence. Each is undermined by a secret trauma. A skiing accident triggers anorexia in Alice while Mattia is riven by guilt. As a child he left his mentally handicapped twin sister in a park while he attended a birthday party. She vanished that night, leaving Mattia to withdraw into an obsession with mathematics. Giordano is adept at capturing the forthright nature of teenagers’ contorted thought processes: simultaneously judgmental and insecure. Equally powerful is the message that broken people can mend each other. The prose is toned and precise, as is so often the case with European fiction, creating a quite wonderful debut.

Robert Dinsdale is another prodigious talent born in 1982. He has taken the first world war as his inspiration just as it disappears from human memory. In The Harrowing (Faber, £12.99) he maps a plot that twists a seasoned cinematic formula (from Saving Private Ryan to Legends of the Fall) to his own ends. William Redmond heads to the trenches in an attempt to save his younger brother, Samuel, who enlisted after trying to murder him on the Yorkshire moors. This sibling tension is the book’s clasp. While William’s forgiveness may seem excessively charitable, Dinsdale also highlights humanity’s shortcomings. The comparison between the flesh-flaying carnage and the routine of civilian life a few miles from the front makes for compulsive reading. In this respect, the novel reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s excellent Grey Souls. ‘It stabbed at them — that here there were normal, loving people, getting on with the business of being alive.’ Dinsdale has done a fine job in conveying that puncture wound and heralds a new generation of authors willing to wrestle with a conflict swiftly slipping into the mists of history.

In Valeria’s Last Stand, (Bloomsbury, £14.99) Marc Fitten has cooked up a confection as rich as a Joanna Harris bonbon. A love triangle between three pensionable Hungarian peasants proves to be whimsical gold as snippy Valeria attempts to jemmy the ivory-haired village potter away from seductive tavern wench Ibolya. The slow-paced village of Zivatar is straight out of vintage Ealing comedy. Entrenched in rural obscurity it remained unvisited by the Wermacht and the red-star troops of the Soviet era. The villagers see-saw between tradition and progress, with bar-room banter and burgeoning capitalism vying for their time. It’s Local Hero with paprikash. Wisely, political shenanigans are played light. This is a book about the search for love in life’s final chapters. The result is as sweet as a sunset-streaked glass of Tokaji. Lie back on the sun-lounger and giggle and coo at its well-crafted charm. No doubt, booksellers will have already registered that it’s a prime contender for their holiday offers. Business is business after all.