Jonathan Barnes

Five First Novels

Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury 352pp £18.99), has chosen a grand canvas, having attempted nothing less than the rewriting of Homer. Her novel gives a new account of the Trojan War and all that led up to it, related through the eyes of Patroclus, the lover of Achilles. Such a project (as Wolfgang Petersen’s leaden, squeamish film Troy proved in 2004) risks kitsch, absurdity, and the inadvertent camp of sandals and tunics. Miller, however (at least to a non-classical eye) has achieved something admirable, breathing twenty-first-century life into the story without sacrificing any of the saga’s majesty or grace. The narrative tone, in particular, shows evidence of much careful honing, being neither too distractingly modern nor stuffed with archaisms. Achilles speaks with ‘a clear voice, like ice-melted streams’, the eyes of Helen are ‘dark and shining as … slick obsidian’ and, at the sight of Odysseus, ‘fear stirred’ in Patroclus ‘like ash’. In the closing phases of the drama, Miller, with quiet artistry, pulls off a technical coup that other, more self-conscious writers might have been tempted to produce with a clunking flourish.

Far from the sound and fury of Troy, the din of battle and the machinations of the gods, modern-day Paris provides the backdrop to Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing (John Murray 320pp £16.99) – perhaps the smallest-scale narrative in this diverse quintet, and the most affecting. The story is told by a triumvirate of narrators: Will, an American literature tutor in an exclusive private school, who believes that ‘teaching is the combination of theater and love, ego and belief’; Marie, the student with whom he forms a disastrously inappropriate relationship; and Gilad, another student who watches, powerless, as their affair unfolds.

Although Maksik might, perhaps, have done more to differentiate these voices (and he should certainly have done something about that plain, unappetising title), his pacing is accomplished, his prose enviably smooth. His publishers are keen to draw parallels with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History but, while there are similarities in this new book’s conjuring of a world of callow privilege, it has none of the theatrics of Tartt’s bestseller. Maksik tells his domestic story without judging any of his characters, content simply to observe them as they make their mistakes. When, at the peak of his transgression, Will feels ‘the sense that something missing had been returned’, Maksik neither excuses nor condemns. His is a book that will be read by many in a couple of sittings and, like The Song of Achilles, satisfies completely.

Peter Salmon’s The Coffee Story (Sceptre 288pp £12.99) is a novel of grievance and regret. Elderly and embittered, a man lies dying in a place that is half hospital ward, half prison cell. Sensing that the end is near, he has decided to tell the story of his life. It is a biography that spans much of the twentieth century, a tale of sex, politics and big business, a drama that, as its title suggests, has to do with coffee, that ‘most capricious of commodities’. He warns us from the start: ‘we may be in for an all-nighter’.

The narrator is Theodore T Everett (‘Teddy’ to his few friends), born in 1920, ‘rich as fuck’, the heir to a large and profitable firm of coffee manufacturers. In sentences which loop and curl around themselves, full of purposeful echoes and deliberate repetitions (‘the freckled red-haired nurse with the red hair and freckles’; ‘he stamped his angry English foot angrily in his anger’), Teddy speaks of wives, lovers, employees and, above all, his father, hugging close a prodigious hatred for the ‘quivering lump of man blubber’ who, we are told, ‘didn’t know shit from clay’. The scope is extensive but Everett makes for wearisome company and the prose, with all its feints and tics, soon grates.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole (And Other Stories 130pp £10) examines a life from a far earlier vantage point. Adopting the voice of a young boy named Tochtli, Villalobos gives us youth instead of age, innocence rather than gnarled experience.

The boy in question lives with his father, some servants, a lion and two tigers in what appears to be a palace. An inquisitive child (‘every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary’), his life seems weirdly out of kilter and it is only gradually that we come to comprehend his true situation – that his dad is a paranoid and murderous drug baron, their home a high-security compound in Mexico. When Tochtli remarks with relish that ‘100,000-dollar bills are the ones we like the most’ or that there are ‘lots of ways of making corpses’, we realise that while he might not yet really appreciate the significance of what he says, it is only a matter of time before he will come to understand. With fewer than 100 pages, the book is deft and ingenious, forming, as Adam Thirlwell remarks in his sprightly introduction, ‘a miniature high-speed experiment in perspective’. It has been translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and her glossary provides information which would have otherwise been lost to the monolingual – in particular that Tochtli means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl, Mexico’s main indigenous language, and that, suggestively, all of the book’s chief characters have ‘names that translate as some sort of animal’.

Both Tochtli and Teddy, with their monstrous fathers, hail from families of the most dysfunctional stripe. While the protagonists of Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang (Picador 320pp £12.99) appear at first to form an altogether more loving unit, they are revealed eventually to be every bit as messed up. Caleb and Camille Fang have devoted their lives to the production of peculiar pieces of performance art: stealing sweets from a candy store; busking deliberately badly; manipulating a school play. Intended to be ‘strange and memorable things’, art born ‘out of confusion’, they are in fact fairly irresponsible public nuisances. The Fang’s children, Annie and Buster, have been encouraged to participate in these ‘guerrilla-style’ happenings but when they reach adulthood both reject their upbringing and leave – Annie to become a movie actress, Buster a novelist. Gradually drawn back together by a series of improbable events, the family are
reunited for one final performance.

Punctuated by set pieces depicting the Fangs’ most successful productions, the book is strongest when, at its most restrained, it concentrates on the private lives of Annie and Buster, the first fearing ‘the awkwardness of revelation’ in a magazine interview, the second falling maladroitly in love. At other moments, the unrelenting kookiness of the Fangs en masse (as even the names of minor characters – Chip Pringle, Mr Guess – strain for eye-catching quirkiness) begins, intentionally perhaps, to pall.

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