I lose count of the dystopian fictions I am sent for review these days; Luke Kennard’s The Transition is yet another. Mercifully, it is a funny one. In a not so distant future, where the ‘average age of leaving the parental home [has] drifted into the early forties’, English graduate Karl scrapes a living writing consumer reviews and undergraduate essays to commission. At least he is ‘getting paid for doing what he loved in a competitive economy’.
Karl’s desperate attempts to make ends meet embroil him in credit card fraud. Rather than go to prison, he accepts a place, together with his wife, Genevieve, on The Transition, a six-month residential course where they will receive comprehensive life coaching from mentors Stu and Janna, right-on Generation X-ers, who profess understanding (‘my generation kicked the ladder away behind us,’ says Stu) but exude disdain (‘you’ve both made some terrible life decisions,’ says Janna).
Sure enough, The Transition is less benign than it claims: it’s engineered to exploit its ‘protégés’, especially those who struggle to make the most of the ‘leg up’ the programme provides. Kennard’s deadpan wit is familiar from his published poetry, and this first novel has already drawn admiring comparisons to another debut comedy of overeducated fecklessness, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. But The Transition is a gentler work, more sympathetic to characters like Karl whose messy lives seem out of place in the modern world, and less concerned with tearing down their modish tormentors.
Olivia Sudjic’s exceptional debut, Sympathy, similarly preoccupied with the limits placed on fellow feeling by modern life, follows 23-year-old Alice Hare, a latter-day Tom Ripley armed with a smartphone. Escaping an overbearing adoptive mother to stay with her grandmother in New York, she becomes obsessed with a slightly older Japanese writer, Mizuko Himura.
Mizuko’s social-media profiles furnish Alice with the material to inveigle herself into a life she already feels a part of, with predictably disastrous consequences. Sudjic’s not always subtle point is that social media creates the impression of an intimacy it renders impossible. Mizuko is constantly breaking off from their conversations to check her messages, and the book is very good on millennial self-absorption. ‘This’, crows Alice to herself when she manages to tag along with Mizuko to a talk on the Holocaust, ‘is the reward for making things happen rather than just waiting for them to happen to you. The talk itself was of course horrific.’
The coincidence-heavy apparatus of a psychological thriller sits awkwardly with Alice’s flâneusing about New York, making acute cultural observations and musing on her past after the fashion of Ben Lerner or Catherine Lacey. Holding all this together is the loneliness that fuels her obsession. She suffers a miscarriage and in the absence of a sympathetic listener addresses the dead foetus: ‘“strange, strange thing,” I said to the fish. Its edges were crisping in the central heating.’ As with all the book’s best moments, the arresting image and the gawky tone are inextricable from its pervasive melancholy.
Modernity is a less threatening presence in Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s first novel, Stay with Me, shortlisted for the Baileys Prize. Part of a wave of brilliant young Nigerian writers that also includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chigozie Obioma and Chibundu Onuzo, Adébáyò explores the tensions between a modernising nation and tradition’s stubborn pull.
The book’s two narrators, Yejide and her husband, Akin, take advantage of Nigeria’s fitful economic growth in the 1980s, Akin’s investments allowing them to build a small property portfolio. They buck polygamous family precedent by committing to a monogamous relationship, but neither modern medicine nor ancient superstition (Yejide breastfeeds a goat on ‘the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles’) provide a solution to the couple’s childlessness. The book opens with Yejide forced to accommodate Akin’s second wife, Fummi. When Yejide does conceive, her children suffer from sickle cell disease; Akin’s family believe them to be abiku, spirit children who have made a promise to die young. The book’s title is a translation of the third child’s name, Rotimi: a plea that she remain in the land of the living.
Stay with Me is a touch too conspicuously well made. Akin’s chapters, revealing the reasons behind the couple’s struggle to conceive, serve to provide narrative twists as satisfying as they are unnecessary. Yejide’s perspective, caught between love and tradition, is all the book needs – that and her voice, sensitive but robust, and defiantly unreasonable as she complains that Fummi is dangerous, ‘the type of woman who would call you a witch just so you could beat her to death and end up in jail’.
Shades of more lost children stalk the pages of Peculiar Ground, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s first work of fiction (her bravura 2013 biography of the Italian fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio won all the prizes going). The peculiar ground of the title is Wychwood, a fictitious Oxfordshire estate, the fates of whose residents we follow over a span of three hundred years.
Beginning in 1663, the opening chapters are narrated by Mr Norris, a landscape gardener charged by the Earl of Woldingham – lately returned from exile with Charles II – with reshaping Wychwood’s grounds. These preparations are overshadowed when Woldingham’s son drowns in the quagmire where his father and Norris planned to build a water feature. The book then leaps forward three hundred years, the historical background of the Restoration replaced by the Cold War. Wychwood is now owned by Lil and Christopher Rossiter, although the Woldingham boy’s death is still something of a folk legend, perhaps because the Rossiters’ son also drowned on the estate. Lurching between different characters’ perspectives, the book charts the shifting relationships first among the Rossiters’ circle, then of Nell Lane, the daughter of their land agent, and her generation.
This entails some clumsy historical scene setting: ‘it is true that there is once more a Charles Stuart enthroned in Whitehall’; ‘Macmillan believes Khrushchev can be talked down, and Jack and Mac are close.’ But that is part of the book’s charm. Like the estate it describes, it is a sprawling, old-fashioned affair, overgrown in places, but full of interesting things, with the sweep of human life built into its fabric.