Ian Sansom

A choice of first novels | 3 August 2017

Promising first novels from Sally Rooney, Olivia Sudjic and Tor Udall are set in Dublin, New York and London respectively

A choice of first novels | 3 August 2017
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Conversations with Friends

Sally Rooney

Faber, pp. 336, £


Olivia Sudjic

One, pp. 416, £

A Thousand Paper Birds

Tor Udall

Bloomsbury Circus, pp. 336, £

Remember Douglas Coupland? Remember Tama Janowitz? Remember Lisa St Aubin de Terán? Banana Yoshimoto? Françoise Sagan? The voice of your generation? (If you’ve forgotten the voice of your generation, the brilliant Christopher Fowler’s forthcoming The Book of Forgotten Authors will provide you with the necessary reminder. The voice of my generation, as far as I’m able to recall, was a poet called Attila the Stockbroker, who we used to go and see perform in Harlow, and who did an excellent Peel session. Whatever the hell happened to Attila the Stockbroker?) Three new debut novels might all properly be acclaimed as representing the voice of their generation — though who knows, only time will tell. In years to come some old man at The Spectator may be asking, Hilary who? Colm Youwhat? That was Zadie with a z? But for now what’s for sure is how strange these millennials seem, and new.

First, Sally Rooney — who, it is noted significantly on the book jacket, since presumably it is significant, was born in 1991 — and Conversations with Friends, which is a brilliant, drifting, languorous sort of a book about brilliant, drifting, languorous Dubliners generally fretting about their lives and getting into all sorts of lovely emotional tangles.

Frances and Bobbi are friends at Trinity College, when they meet Melissa, an older, worldly-wise photographer, and her husband, Nick, who’s an actor. And guess what? Yep, Bobbi gets involved in a relationship with Melissa and Frances with Nick. Rooney has Frances narrate the book with a delightful dreamy insouciance that is at first rather irritating but then utterly beguiling. It reads indeed like a conversation with a friend:

We had sex, it was nice, and afterwards we lay there looking up at the ceiling. Air hauled itself into my lungs, I felt peaceful. Nick touched my hand and said: are you warm now? I’m warm, I said. Your concern for my temperature is quite touching. Oh well, he said.

‘You can’t always take the analytical position,’ Frances concludes, and she doesn’t. Rooney achieves something rather remarkable for a first-time novelist: she makes you want her to like you. I’ve no idea exactly how this is done: sheer charisma, presumably. Camus, Isherwood, Clarice Lispector. They all had it.

At one point in Conversations with Friends, Frances reveals that while talking to Nick she would sometimes type his name into Google

to remind me what he looked like. I read everything about him on the internet and often emailed him quotes from his own interviews, even after he asked me to stop.

Olivia Sudjic — born in 1988, it is significantly noted on her book jacket — in her absolute fizz of a novel, Sympathy, has her narrator go much further. Sympathy is a ‘love story that is mostly made up, from memories that are mostly false, between people who were mainly not there’, and is narrated by Alice Hare, a young British graduate on holiday in New York who becomes obsessed with a famous Japanese woman writer and Instagrammer who is teaching at Columbia. For Alice, the internet is basically ‘a tool designed for the sole purpose of observing her’.

Sympathy is full of various characters, sub-plots and observations, though interestingly all of the people in Sudjic’s delirious New York are essentially the same sorts of people to be found in Rooney’s dreamy Dublin: rich people with complicated lives. (Though some more complicated than others, it has to be said: a character named Dwight is an ‘Innovation Consultant, App Developer, Apiarist’ who is working on an app called TriMe, a kind of Tinder for threesomes.)

Alice is afflicted by what she calls ‘big-small dreams’, which is a fair description of the dizzying ambition and super-fine details of the novel:

Big-small refers to the sensation of big meeting small. Of strange scales, which seem to contrast so greatly that the moment of their meeting is like an explosion, which then collapses all distinctions between them for one instant. A unity of opposites.

If not exactly a unity of opposites, Sympathy certainly represents an extraordinary coming together of stories and ideas.

‘How did adults of a certain age not understand how the internet worked?’ Alice wonders in Sympathy. ‘There’s no end to things, no way out… nothing stays private and nothing goes away.’ Tor Udal — age undisclosed, which presumably means she may be of a generation older than Z — tackles in her novel A Thousand Paper Birds the tricky question of what happens when things do go away, as indeed they must. Jonah is mourning the death of his wife Audrey. (This is in London, by the way, but again as a place it rather resembles New York or Dublin: maybe all novels now have to be written about artsy middle-class people in big cities.)

Compared to Rooney’s fabulous cool and Sudjic’s many fascinations, Udall’s style seems simply careful:

His wife’s scent hangs in the air, a perfume she has worn for years. He remains in the doorway, surveying the chalk-white walls, the varnished floorboards, the embroidered red throw. The shelves are crammed with books and the memories of reading them.

Udall’s care comes into its own in the descriptions of Kew Gardens, which is as significant a character in the book as the actual characters, none of whom are quite who or what they seem, and who turn out all to be related in different ways to poor dead Audrey. Udall’s care and precision is also useful when it comes to Jonah meeting Chloe, an artist obsessed with origami, which provides a key to the rather complex shape of the novel.

She begins with a simple bird base, so basic she could do it in her sleep… In origami, thousands of objects are created from the humble square — the challenge is folding anew each time.

As the various stories become slowly connected so the grand scheme of the books is revealed. Some confusion, many lives, many voices.