Christian House

A choice of first novels | 7 August 2010

Write what you know. Isn’t that what aspiring novelists are told?

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Write what you know. Isn’t that what aspiring novelists are told?

Write what you know. Isn’t that what aspiring novelists are told? While two first-timers have taken the advice this summer, there is also an exception to prove the rule.

In The Imperfectionists (Quercus, £16.99), Tom Rachman draws on his time at the International Herald Tribune to write a quirky patchwork tale of an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Cyrus Ott, helmsman of an American industrial dynasty, chronicles the paper’s fortunes, from its inception in the 1950s to the Noughties. Interspersed are the stories of the various reporters, editors and readers whose lives are anchored to Cyrus’s grand enterprise on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.

They make for a hapless bunch. There’s the ageing Paris correspondent, slowly fading into obscurity in the city of light, the obituaries writer, with one foot in the professional grave, and the young Cairo stringer, railroaded by a visiting war reporter. ‘Take a deep breath, Dude!’ says Mr Gung Ho as he steals both the sucker’s byline and his laptop.

Rachman details his profession with an eye on the tragicomic. Cobbled-together obituaries find a ‘final resting place at the bottom of page nine, between Puzzle-Wuzzle and World Weather’. Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, stalks the floor chanting his mantra: ‘Credibility! Credibility!’ He’s a one-man barricade against mangled grammar and dubious lingo. ‘GWOT,’ he points out with exasperation,

stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish.

Ultimately, this fine debut focuses on the bittersweet inevitability of the twilight. The impermanence of passions and worries is the refrain. ‘At newspapers,’ the news editor explains, ‘what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.’ Much like life, Rachman tells us.

In Black Water Rising (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99) Attica Locke expands an incident in her parents’ past into a fictional mystery that deservedly put her on the Orange Prize shortlist, joining other female literary crime writers — Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Donna Tartt — in creating an authentic male narrative voice. Jay Porter is a black lawyer in early 1980s Houston. He’s struggling to put his activism behind him and support his heavily pregnant wife by representing lowlife defendants. However, when he rescues a white woman from the murky waters of the Bayou, as gunshots echo through the mangroves, his troubles really begin.

Locke keeps the drama going at a fair clip while capturing a time and place with expert precision. Her Houston is a metropolis of hookers and high-fliers, barflies and barons, a place riven with racial tension where life can be as crude as the oil that built the city.

The story plays out in the wake of Black Power operations, the choices that turned the civil rights movement militant and an argument of principle into a deadly game of attrition. Setting the novel in 1981 allows for some pertinent comparisons. A generation earlier Jay’s father was beaten to death by two white men — an act that while not impossible is improbable in Jay’s own day. As the reader is only too aware, a further three decades on things have progressed to a point when a man can bring colour to the White House. It makes this a historical novel in the best sense, linking the action to both past and present situations.

In the entirely fantastical Light Boxes, Shane Jones’s little pebble of a book (Hamish Hamilton, £9.99), a rural town is besieged by ‘February’. This is more than a month; it is an endless winter and an omnipotent, God-like figure who banishes flight and uses sinister priests as his emissaries. When children start disappearing, ‘the Solution’, a resistance network of balloonists, begins to fight the big chill. Jones’s imagination floats in a netherworld of the absurd, somewhere between Magritte and Roald Dahl. The only personal ingredient that he could possibly have mixed into this crazy concoction would be a propensity for Seasonal Affective Disorder.