Tom Darling, Summer (2012)

Tom Darling’s second novel, Summer, is the story of teenage Grace Hooper and her nine-year-old brother Billy, who arrive on their grandfather’s farm as orphans, their parents having been killed in an accident on holiday. School will not begin again for several months; until then, the children face a summer in an environment far removed from the London they know (underlining their sense of disorientation, it is never clear just where the farm is), with a relative who might as well be a stranger (and, indeed, is referred to almost exclusively in the book as ‘the old man’).

Summer is a quiet book that takes time to unfold, often telling its story in the gaps between scenes as well as within the scenes themselves. It moves between the present, the past, and the old man’s dreams, generally maintaining the same tone. These techniques can be effective; the children’s memories feel like the mirages they are, aspects of the present rather than an equal reality; and, though it’s evident from the grandfather’s bad dreams that something terrible has happened on the farm previously, the reader has to piece that together over time. However, the novel also feels a bit too diffuse; its different narrative components are not tied together as closely as they might be, and some key points may be lost amongst the whole.

But what Darling does particularly well in Summer is delineate the change in his protagonists. At first, it’s Billy who takes instinctively to the farm environment, and his grandfather is only too happy to accommodate his interest. Billy’s existence on the farm becomes almost elemental, and he spends more time in one of his outside hideaways than in the farmhouse. Grace, in contrast, is more cast adrift at first, but eventually comes to her own instinctive—though subtly different—understanding of her surroundings; her relationship with the farm is mediated through human contact more than is Billy’s, and the way she ultimately views the place is more ordered. It’s in details like this, and as a study of character, that Summer shines most strongly.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Reviews elsewhere: Learn This Phrase; What Sarah Reads; Stevie Davies for the Guardian.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (2010/1)

Alice Zeniter was 23 when she published Jusque dans nos bras (now superbly translated from the French by Alison Anderson as Take This Man), and it really feels as though she has captured in it something of contemporary life for her generation. We meet Zeniter’s protagonist (also named Alice Zeniter) as she is about to marry her Malian childhood friend Amadou (‘Mad’) Traoré – a marriage brought about because it will prevent Mad from being deported under new immigration laws, despite his having lived in France most of his life. The novel’s chapters alternate between the lead-up to the wedding and Alice’s various encounters with racism.

Take This Man begins with a brilliant passage listing the touchstones of Alice’s generation as she sees them; it captures a mixture of optimism and anxiety which carries through to the main novel, where one senses that Alice is never quite sure whether marrying Mad is really the right thing to do (her first-person narration frequently lapses into addressing herself as ‘you’, emphasising that dislocation). Zeniter traces the complexities of Alice’s situation – her father may be from Algeria, but she appears white, and discovers that her experiences are not the same as Mad’s – and charts her growing political awareness, all in fizzing prose.

Review at Soifollowjulian.

Christopher Meredith, The Book of Idiots (2012)

Christopher Meredith’s first adult novel in fourteen years seems at first like a tapestry of the mundane. Interspersed with tales of boyhood games, Dean Lloyd narrates episodes from his adult life: interviewing candidates for a new position at his workplace; conversations at the swimming pool with Jeff, an old work colleague whose trunks keep threatening to disintegrate; a country walk with a friend named Wil Daniel, who tells Dean about a chance meeting at hospital with a woman he once knew, and its consequences. But there’s more going on than Dean – or the reader – may suspect.

Meredith has a particularly sharp ear for dialogue which feels like actual speech; and he creates a sharp portrait of thwarted potential – for example, Wil wonders what use his degree in English and history has really been; the answer, as far as the novel goes, is that he can play a guessing game with Dean about how different historical figures died.

I don’t think I managed to grasp everything Meredith was doing in The Book of Idiots; but the title intrigued me and, with the novel’s mentions of Ancient Greece, I looked up the original meaning of ‘idiot’ – which, as I understand it, was someone focused on the private sphere, on themselves. Viewing the book through this lens, I see characters with personal concerns which they don’t share, or don’t recognise in others – with tragic consequences. It’s the unseen things in The Book of Idiots which carry the greatest impact.

Review and interview by Gwen Davies in New Welsh Review.