Sophie Coulombeau, Rites (2012)
Last year, the Pontefract-based publisher Route announced its ‘Next Great Novelist’ award, which would lead to the publication of a book by a new novelist under the age of 30. Sophie Coulombeau won, and Rites is her winning novel. Told in the form of interview transcripts, it is the story of four Manchester teenagers who made a pact to lose their virginity to each other in 1997, an incident which gained notoriety (for reasons unspecified as the book begins); in the present day, the then-teenagers – and other characters involved – look back on that time, and leave the reader to construct exactly what happened.
Coulombeau’s great strength in Rites is in how she controls the flow of information, and plays with and against readers’ expectations. When her opening narrator Damien suggests (in his pitch-perfect, insufferable voice) that only some people think what his teenage self did was ‘terrible’, we’re immediately put in mind that our initial assumptions about events may come to be overturned – and so it proves, but subtly, as ‘blame’ passes between the characters, and we realise that everyone has slightly different memories of the past. So there’s a wonderful sense of uncertainty – the feeling that, even when we think we know everything, perhaps we don’t after all. Add to this some insightful observations – on growing up, falling in love, and more besides – and you have a fine debut novel.
William Boyd, Fascination (2004)
The other week, I decided it was about time I read something by William Boyd – but where to start with such a prolific author? I asked for suggestions on Twitter, and the most common response by far was his 1987 novel The New Confessions. I looked for that book next time I was in the library, but they didn’t have it; instead, I came away with Fascination, one of Boyd’s short story collections – and it wasn’t the best place to start.
Most of Boyd’s protagonists in these stories experience sudden (and often unhealthy) desire for another person; this can lead to some effective moments, as in ‘The Woman on the Beach with a Dog’, whose married main character pursues a woman he encounters, but has no idea what to do after he’s done so. But, too often, I get a sense that, take away Boyd’s formal conceits – a story told in the form of a diner’s notes on a week’s lunches, for example; or one where individual scenes are headed with video operations (past-set scenes labelled ‘rewind’, and so on) – and there’s not much left to make the tales stand out.
I certainly get enough of a sense from Fascination that Boyd is a writer worth reading: ‘The Ghost of a Bird’ is a poignant portrait of a convalescing soldier recovering his memory, and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The title story draws neat parallels between two relationships with women in a journalist’s past and present. ‘The Mind/Body Problem’ deploys its theme in interesting ways, as a philosophy student makes fake lotions and potions for a female bodybuilder at his parents’ gym and in a sense ‘remakes’ her as a person when her attitude changes. But I think I should have started with one of Boyd’s novels, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for The New Confessions.