Violet Hudson

A choice of first novels | 28 July 2012

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A re-telling of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Francesca Segal’s debut The Innocents (Chatto, £14.99) takes the action to contemporary Golders Green. The daily minutiae of Jewish life are documented, from eating challah at Shabbat to the moments preceding a circumcision, alongside more sweeping statements: ‘For a people whose history is one of exodus and eviction,’ says Segal about ritual meals, ‘the luxury of repetition is precious.’

Both the cosiness and insularity of the community are described, particularly as it comes together in moments of celebration:

‘Friday night dinner’ is one of the most evocative phrases in the vocabulary of any Jew — up there in significance with ‘my son the doctor’ and ‘my daughter’s wedding’.

Our young hero, Adam Newman, is due to marry Rachel Gilbert but is led astray by his desire for her cousin Ellie Schnieder, a beautiful but damaged model. The characters are well-realised, touching and fallible, their relationships complicated — except for that between Adam and Ellie; the two hardly exchange any words, suggesting their affair is based almost entirely on physical desire.

Segal is especially good on guilt, as Adam’s betrayal and yearning for adventure lead him away from the wine bars of NW11. In the end, however, the ethos of ‘the Noah’s Ark of Temple Fortune’ prevails: the animals go in two by two and no change is realised.

The Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has been getting a lot of publicity, not least for her youth and looks, but Faces in the Crowd (Granta, £12.99) will in time be remembered for its own beauty, and not just for that of its author. This is a literary book, full of allusions to other writers, beginning with its title, which comes from Pound. On the first page we learn: ‘I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends’. It concerns two isolated people, one a Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, in 1920s New York,the other a housewife in today’s South America, who has previously worked in an American publishing house and attempted to translate Owen’s work. Their lives seep into one another, as they pass, nearly a century apart, on the New York subway. It is a novel in which ‘all the characters are dead, but they don’t know it’. People flit in and out dreamily, coming and going as in A Dance to the Music of Time.  

Both characters eventually become trapped in their respective homes: the woman by an earthquake, Owen by blindness. Loss of sight is brilliantly and chillingly described: ‘Blindness, like castigation and waterfalls, comes from above . . . and it’s accepted with the humble resignation of a body trapped in a pool. My blindness is black and white and I have a veritable Niagara on my brow.’ This theme too is literary: Jorge Luis Borges wrote memorably about his loss of vision, as did José Saramago.

As this wistful novel progresses, the stories of the two characters blend and merge into one. It is a poetically realised and fragile portrait of the fracturing nature of urban life, of overheated New York apartments and the strangeness of ordinary human interactions, of cats curling up and trees dying and the jolts and accelerations of the subway.

In her taut and mesmeric Snake Ropes (Sceptre, £17.99), Jess Richards takes us to a remote island where strange things are happening and two young girls are struggling to make sense of them. Mary’s little brother has gone missing; Morgan’s mother has locked her family in behind a high gate. As they both search for resolution, the history and story of the island are revealed: the odd customs, the myths of Glimmeras and Sishee, the Thrashing House where punishment is meted out, Selkies, keys that can speak and herbs that block memory and ropes that bite.

There is a sexual subtext throughout that only comes to the fore at the end; even then, this is a matriarchal society and the male characters are merely metonyms — an old boot, a pair of eyes. There are some more universal truths concealed within this dark fairy tale. However, the unusual syntax will not be to everyone’s taste:

Whatever folk chose to thieve, it is something to do with what is missing in them. So if you meet a thief who steals everything them comes across, and them are indiscriminate with thems thieving, it means them believe them have nothing of worth in themselves.