Leyla Sanai

A choice of first novels | 4 February 2012

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Mountains of the Moon

I.J. Kay

Cape, pp. 368, £

Alys, Always

Harriet Lane

Weidenfeld, pp. 224, £

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals

Wendy Jones

Corsair, pp. 208, £

Mountains of the Moon is narrated by a woman just released after spending ten years in jail. The reason for her sentence and the details of her previous life are pieced together through disjointed fragments, forming a complex jigsaw. Lulu had a shocking childhood, with a violent stepfather and negligent mother. Her only loving relatives were her grandfather, who fuelled her imagination by conjuring up the Masai Mara in her dreary south-England surroundings, and her two half brothers, from whom she was eventually separated.

This account, related in an idiosyncratic patois, with the matter-of-fact innocence of an abused child for whom abnormality is the norm, is quite horrifying. Lulu is also heartbreakingly charming and vulnerable in her observations: ‘Nanny comes like a weeble down the path’; ‘the policemen look like wombles, they both got the dog’s hair on’. Her narrative voice as an adult is equally arresting. The details are so vivid that one cannot help feeling the author (clealy writing under a pseudonym) must have had first-hand experience of this world of detention centres and foster care. Mountains of the Moon is a riveting novel, both disturbing and entertaining, with twisted low-life characters rivalling any created by Martin Amis or Nicola Barker.

Moving from abuse to subtler forms of manipulation, Harriet Lane’s Alys, Always is a superbly disquieting psychological thriller. Frances is an invisible literary subeditor, until she happens on an accident involving the affluent Alys. She is set to forget the episode until she senses its possibilities.

Lane is a formidable wordsmith, and the literary world is conjured up in all its delicious, gossipy hierarchy. She specialises in sharp character assassinations: the imperious literary editor who ignores the lowly, but ‘unctuously attends to the ego’ of the important; the titled daughter of a famous writer who ‘is entirely at ease talking about herself, as if it’s her birthright to be heard’.

Frances is seduced by privilege and money, and ashamed of her own parents. Her mother is a wonderful concoction of aspirational disingenuity: ‘Conversation with my mother rarely goes anywhereunexpected. She has a horror of the unexpected, and her entire life is structured to keep it at bay’; ‘she has a deep-seated fear of vulgarity, as if it might suddenly overpower her in a dark alley.’ Mordantly funny, yet chilling, this tale of an ordinary woman inveigling her way into a position of power is compulsive reading.

Wendy Jones’s debut, though ostensibly frothy by comparison, also has a dark side. It follows the travails of a village undertaker in Wales in the 1920s. Despite the advice of his ex-boss (whose gems of wisdom included ‘Talk about the deceased as if they were alive. No one wants to know about their mother’s anal cork’), Wilfred allows his hormones to overrule his brain, blurting out a proposal to a girl he barely knows. She accepts, while he rues his impulsiveness.

Wilfred is a hero we root for, despite his weaknesses. His eccentricities (improving his vocabulary by reading a dictionary) are endearingly neurotic. When lost for words on meeting a girl, he wonders whether to launch into a joke, but concludes that ‘she might think it was rather an odd thing to say, like that, out of the blue: “Hello Flora. What’s got a mouth but can’t talk?” ’

Period detail is vividly evoked, with the three daily postal deliveries, the deserted Welsh coves, the aftermath of the great flu epidemic, Griddle’s treacle and Punch and Judy. This is a delightful debut, whose droll exterior masks something wiser and sadder: the importance of truth, parental favouritism and lives ruined or redeemed by a single event.