Alexander Larman

A choice of first novels | 24 March 2012

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Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat (Virago, £12.99) comes garlanded with praise from the likes of J. M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel. Rogan, who has only taken up writing after a career in architecture and engineering, tells the story of Grace Winter, a young woman on trial for murder as the novel opens. She and her husband Henry had been travelling on a transatlantic liner, the Empress Alexandra, in 1914. When the ship mysteriously sank, Grace managed to secure  a place on a crowded lifeboat, commanded by the enigmatic Hardie. But what happened to her husband? And why did the ship sink?

Rogan does an excellent job of conveying the fear and claustrophobia of a lifeboat full of strangers, whose travails form a large part of the story. Grace is a fascinatingly ambiguous protagonist, someone who is never exactly likeable or sympathetic but who nonetheless commands our interest. Where Rogan perhaps fails is in developing her subsidiary characters and in satisfactorily resolving some of the mysteries she hints at,which makes for a disappointing conclusion.

A different kind of journey forms the basis of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, £12.99). The retired Fry is living a mundane life with his wife Maureen in a village in Devon when, out of the blue, he receives a postcard from a former colleague, Queenie, informing him that she’s dying of cancer. Harold, who is not given to sentiment or spontaneity, finds himself walking 500 miles to Berwick to visit Queenie one last time, all the while believing that each step he takes may prolong her life.

It comes as no surprise to find that Joyce, a prolific writer of radio plays, originally cast her story as a radio drama. Its picaresque narrative has a tidy feel, with the various characters that Fry meets along the way all growing as people and learning valuable lessons themselves. This is an elegantly written novel, full of well-observed detail, and Joyce has a sure ear for the revealing banalities of everyday conversation.

The opening of Emylia Hall’s The Book of Summers (Headline Review, £14.99) would make a beautifully nuanced self-contained short story. Her protagonist, Beth Lowe, seems to lead a contented existence working in a gallery in east London. But all is not well, as we discover when she receives an upsetting visit from her father, who bears with him a scrapbook that belonged to her late mother, a Hungarian artist — and it soon becomes clear that Hungary has played an important part in Beth’s childhood, for good and ill. Despite its rather contrived happy ending, this is an enjoyable and confidant debut.

Finally, Will Wiles’s Care of Wooden Floors (Harper Press, £12.99) is a true oddity. The blundering, unnamed narrator heads to an anonymous East European city to flat-sit for his friend Oskar, who is away getting an expensive divorce in L.A. Oskar keeps his apartment immaculately, and the narrator’s untidiness and incompetence initially lead to comic chaos — until things take a darker turn and start to go truly awry.

Wiles is an architecture and design journalist, and there’s something pleasingly streamlined about his novel’s plotting, although the writing itself I found too detached — even clinical — given the absurdity of the goings-on. This can make for a disconcerting read, but Wiles is nonetheless a talent to watch — if from a safe distance.