CategoryLalwani Nikita

Fiction Uncovered 2013

Now in its third year, Fiction Uncovered is an initiative aimed at bringing the work of established (but not necessarily widely-known) British writers to the attention of a wider audience. A changing panel of judges curates a list of eight books published in the previous twelve months: this year’s panel  comprised the writer Louise Doughty (chair of judges); dovegreyreader herself, Lynne Hatwell; Sandy Mahal of the Reading Agency charity; and the writer Courttia Newland.

I have written for Fiction Uncovered occasionally, and this year was lucky enough to have a preview of the list (which is announced today), so I’ve been catching up on the titles I’d not previously read. Here are the judges’ selections for Fiction Uncovered 2013:

Lucy Caldwell, All the Beggars Riding (Faber & Faber)

Lara Moorhouse looks back on her childhood; how her parents met; and the legacy of her father, a plastic surgeon who had another life and family in Belfast and died during the Troubles. Caldwell’s novel strikes me very much as a book about memory, writing, and the difficulties of capturing the past. Just as her father would rebuild faces, so Lara tries to reconstruct a version of the past that rings true for her – and it’s not until the final pages that we discover just how much work Lara has had to undertake.

Anthony Cartwright, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (Tindal Street Press)

This is the story of Sean Bull, who grows up in a staunch Labour family in Dudley, and is nine years old in 1979 when he sees his grandfather thump Uncle Eric for voting Tory. We then follow Sean as he grows up through the ‘80s, witnessing the decline of the manufacturing community around him, and the effects on his family. He knows that Margaret Thatcher is involved in all this somehow, but as a child he can’t really comprehend what is happening. Cartwright paints an effective portrait of a time and place, and of a character trying to deal with circumstances far beyond his control.

Niven Govinden, Black Bread White Beer (The Friday Project)

Amal and Claud are a thirtysomething couple on their way to her parents’ house in Sussex; what nobody down there knows yet is that Claud has suffered a miscarriage. Black Bread White Beer stands out for me because of the precision with which Govinden depicts the couple’s relationship. It seems that Amal has never quite felt comfortable in the role of Claud’s husband – they come from dissimilar backgrounds (not just that his family is Indian and hers from rural England; the two families also have rather different outlooks and values), and Amal feels in some ways that Claud is simply better than him. There’s a sense that the baby was going to be what would finally cement the pair’s relationship, and now they need to rediscover what brought them together. By novel’s end, they may just be on the way to doing that.

Nikita Lalwani, The Village (Viking)

An Anglo-Indian documentary maker goes to film at an open prison in India, and finds her sense of ethics tested. Previously reviewed by me here.

Nell Leyshon, The Colour of Milk (Fig Tree)

In 1830, a farm girl is sent to work at the local vicarage… and you’ll have to read the rest of this short, intense novel to discover what happens. Previously reviewed by me here.

James Meek, The Heart Broke In (Canongate)

A big, sprawling novel which revolves around three characters: Ritchie Shepherd, a television presenter who’s been sleeping around; his sister Bec, a successful scientist who’s just broken up with a newspaper editor; and Alex Comrie, the drummer in Ritchie’s old band, now a cancer specialist, who embarks on a relationship with Bec. Meek traces the moral issues of these characters’ personal and professional lives, as that spurned newsman threatens to reveal their secrets.

Amy Sackville, Orkney (Granta)

Sackville’s debut, The Still Point, was one of my favourite reads of 2010; this follow-up shares its sharp focus on relationships and nature. Richard, a sixty-year-old literature professor, is on honeymoon in Orkney; his (unnamed) new bride was one of his students, mysterious and beautiful, drawn to the sea even though she can’t swim. Our thoughts may lead naturally to a particular interpretation of who (or what) Richard’s wife is; but Sackville does not permit such a straightforward reading. There’s a tension over how far Richard’s descriptions of his partner are her true nature, and how far they are his projections from within his literary frame of reference; the dynamic of the couple’s relationship then shifts over the course of the novel. Add to this a fine sense of place, and you have a highly intriguing read.

Rupert Thomson, Secrecy (Granta)

In 1691, the artist Gaetano  Zummo (a genuine historical figure, notable for his realistic wax figures) arrives in Florence to undertake a commission for the Grand Duke of Tuscany – to create a life-size statue of Venus. Zummo hears whispers of what may be a plot against him; falls in love with a young woman named Faustina who is not all she seems; and uses as his model for the statue the body of another young woman found in the river, apparently murdered. Thomson presents Florence as a maze of secrets and stories, as it seems almost everyone has a tale to tell and something to hide.

Book notes: Rosy Thornton and Nikita Lalwani

Rosy Thornton, Ninepins (2012)

Cambridge academic Laura Blackwood and her twelve-year-old daughter Beth live in Ninepins, a former tollhouse build atop a dyke out in the fens. To help make ends meet, Laura has been renting out the adjoining old pumphouse. As the novel begins, her latest tenant arrives: Willow Tyler, a seventeen-year-old care-leaver. Laura is wary of taking Willow on, because she’s younger than previous tenant, and there are whispers of arson in her past – but she wants to give the girl a chance, and Social Services will pay more rent than would a private tenant. But the subsequent months bring problems with the weather,Willow’s estranged mother, and Beth and her friends.

The sense of place is vivid in Rosy Thornton’s new novel – the damp atmosphere of the fens and the remoteness of Ninepins come straight off the page. The dislocated setting provides a fitting background and mirror to the story: Laura starts to feel increasingly distanced from Beth, who’s now getting into trouble in ways she never previously did; and Willow is trying (though not always succeeding) to leave her mother behind. Besides this, the whole book moves along nicely, all adding up to an engaging read.

Elsewhere
Rosy Thornton’s website
Thornton writes about the novel on Sally Zigmond’s blog
Some other reviews of Ninepins: A Bookish Affair; Book Dilettante; Kate Phillips for For Books’ Sake.

Nikita Lalwani, The Village (2012)

Anglo-Indian director Ray Bhullar arrives at the Indian village of Ashwer to make a documentary for the BBC. Ashwer’s inhabitants are mostly ordinary folk, but for one detail: a member of each family has killed someone. This village is an open prison, whose inmates are allowed to live with their families; it’s had no reoffenders, and only one (unsuccessful) escape attempt. Ray’s aim is to make a film that will allow her British audience to appreciate the people of Ashwer as they really are; but her white colleagues – producer Serena and (ex-offender) presenter Nathan – are not quite so noble-minded.

The ethics of documentary-making are at the centre of Nikita Lalwani’s second novel, as Ray tries to find the balance between telling a good story and not exploiting her subjects. It’s no easy task, because she finds herself inadvertently getting closer to certain villagers than she’d intended. And Ray’s own ethical sense is not entirely clear-cut – she’d love to be able to film people completely candidly, but that would mean not having their consent. Lalwani documents the thorny tangle of these issues, building up to a couple of tense set-pieces at novel’s end.

Running in parallel with this is Ray’s personal struggle with herself – her sense that, despite her Indian heritage, she may not fit in with the culture of Ashwer as much as she’d thought. It adds another layer of complexity to a novel which ends in a resolution which feels as much a compromise on Ray’s part as a step forward for her.

Elsewhere
Nikita Lalwani’s website
Interview with Lalwani at The Asian Writer
Some other reviews of The Village: Maia Nikitina for Bookmunch; Laura Reading Books; Arifa Akbar for the Independent.

A dozen Penguin authors

On Thursday night, the good folks of Penguin General (the Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, and Viking imprints) hosted their second annual bloggers’ night, in the 5th View cocktail bar at Waterstones Piccadilly. This event was on a different scale from last year’s, with almost twice as many authors, and quite a few more bloggers – I don’t know if this was the largest-ever gathering of UK book bloggers, but I imagine it must have been close.

I was particularly pleased to get the chance to meet Nat Segnit, whose Pub Walks in Underhill Country was one of my favourite books from last year; he also gave one of the best readings of the night. But all twelve readings were good; so let’s go through them.

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Naomi Alderman’s new novel is so new that there aren’t any advance copies yet, so she read from her laptop. The Liars’ Gospel is a retelling of the life and death of Jesus; Alderman read from the very beginning, which describes the ritual sacrifice of a lamb – and, if the rest of the book is as well-written as that, it’s one I want to read.

I already had a copy of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree, on the TBR pile. It’s set in South Africa in 1880, amid rumours of a smallpox epidemic in the diamond mines. There was some really good use of detail in the domestic scene which McVeigh read, and that bodes well for the rest of the novel.

Have I still never read anything by Marina Lewycka since A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian? (Answer: no, I haven’t.) I should probably rectify that, and Lewycka’s  reading from Various Pets Alive and Dead was a good reminder of why. Her extract effectively sketched the four main characters in the novel, and included some sharp description of place.

Next up was Greg Baxter, whose first novel, The Apartment, was the second book from tonight already on my TBR pile. Baxter was a measured, precise reader, which went well with the spare style of his extract. I’m now still further intrigued to read the whole book.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson tells of a Polish family reuniting in England after the war. I’m not quite sure whether this is a book for me, but I found the particular extract Hodgkinson read to be a good character sketch.

Now on to the only non-fiction book and author of the evening. The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is about the ancient paths ofBritain, the stories intertwined in them, and how people have been shaped by them. Macfarlane read an extract concerning an the encounter with Hanging figure by the sculptor Steve Dilworth; fascinating stuff, and definitely a book I’d like to read.

The second half of the evening began with Elif Shafak’s reading from her latest novel, Honour, which focuses on a Kurdish-Turkish family who move toLondon. Shafak read from the beginning of the book, where the daughter of the family prepares to meet her brother on his release from prison (he was convicted for murder). This was a strong set-up for the rest of the novel, and I look forward to reading on.

Set in 19th-centurySomerset, Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk is the account of a girl named Mary, who is sent to work for the local vicar’s wife, where she has good reason to write down what happened to her. Leyshon’s excerpt gave a hint as to what that reason might be, and her reading brought Mary’s character vividly to life.

Then it was Nat Segnit’s turn to read from Pub Walks in Underhill Country – and it was just like discovering the book all over again. Segnit was an excellent reader (an audiobook of this read by him would be wonderful), and the extract he chose hilarious. Seriously, if you have not read this novel, you should.

From a novel I already loved to one of which I’d never even heard. Tom Bullough’s Konstantin is a fictional account of the life of the Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; it was tricky to judge from the reading what the book as a whole might be like, but I started reading it on the train home, and it’s shaping up to be interesting.

The next author to take the stage was Nikita Lalwani, reading from her second novel, The Village. The set-up sounded intriguing – a documentary-maker travels fromEnglandto make a film about an Indian village which is also an open prison – and Lalwani’s reading only confirmed that view.

The evening closed with a reading from a Booker-winning author – James Kelman. Mo said she was quirky is a novel chronicling a day in the life of a single mother; on the evidence of Kelman’s reading, it’s also a novel very concerned with voice – it felt like a novel to be read out loud. I look forward to reading and finding out if that impression is correct.

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And then, as Joshua Ferris put it, we came to the end. My thanks to everyone involved for such an enjoyable evening.

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