Simon Baker

Four First Novels

  • Peter Anthony, 
  • Carol Topolski, 
  • Antonia Arslan, 
  • Kaui Hart Hemmings

A Town Called Immaculate

By Peter Anthony

Macmillan New Writing 290pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

A Town Called Immaculate, by Peter Anthony, is the latest novel from Macmillan New Writing, which works with firsttime novelists, many of whom have had their work rejected by regular publishers. Authors signed up receive no advance or worldwide rights, and the novels are only lightly edited and are not marketed extensively; as a result, the imprint has been criticised for devaluing literature – Hari Kunzru labelled it ‘the Ryanair of publishing’. I read MNW’s first six titles two years ago, and thought that only one of them was worth printing.

Peter Anthony’s effort, happily, is an improvement. Set in a traditional Minnesotan town on Christmas Eve, 1981, it focuses on the Marak family, Renee, Ray and the children, Ethan and Jacob. Renee is a bright woman who forsook university and a career to stay in Immaculate, and Ray is a Vietnam veteran whose farm is nearly insolvent. The novel is a story of love and infidelity, involving the local bank manager with whom Renee once had a fling and who will soon be responsible for closing down Ray’s farm. Anthony’s prose is generally fluid and readable, and the drama unfolds satisfyingly, bit by bit. The only shame is that the book would, unsurprisingly, have benefited from editing. Some sections ought to have been shortened or excised altogether, and a few stilted phrases would have been better reworded. However, while not as good as it might have been, it is still a commendable debut.

Monster Love

By Carol Topolski

Fig Tree 228pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

A novel which will probably attract more attention is Monster Love, by Carol Topolski, about the torture and murder of a child by two seemingly well-adjusted, middle-class parents. Brendan and Sherilyn are a successful young couple, he a partner at an accountancy firm, she a personnel manager. They are not exactly outgoing, and are somewhat austere in their tastes – their home is icily spotless – but they are intensely close and seem quite normal.

Within a few pages, however, we discover that they kept their daughter Samantha in a cage, fed her leftovers or cat food, burned her and beat her; they then fled the country, leaving her behind in the cage, where she starved to death. This horrifying story switches perspective every few pages, looking at the event, its lead-up and aftermath from the viewpoints of those involved – parents, friends, neighbours, police and the murderers themselves. The author is a psychotherapist, and the picture of the couple – each has a history of abuse – is effectively drawn. Topolski also shows versatility in changing the narrative voice to suit the person addressing the reader.

It’s mostly well done, therefore, but is it enjoyable? There are some impressive passages, but others that are gruelling to read without adding much; the book occasionally reminds you that verisimilitude is admirable but does not, by itself, always work as an artistic aim. However, the book, if not uplifting, is well paced and deftly written.

Skylark Farm

By Antonia Arslan

Atlantic Books 275pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Skylark Farm (Atlantic Books 275pp £12.99) is by Antonia Arslan, a retired professor of Italian literature who recently became interested in her Armenian roots. Based on her family’s history, the novel deals with the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during the First World War (a massacre which Turkey has refused to acknowledge as genocide). Here it is grafted on to a quiet story of homecoming. The eponymous farm is lived in by Sempad, a pharmacist, who is happily awaiting the return of his brother Yerwant, who emigrated to Italy as a teenager. Sempad fails to notice until too late that the Turkish government is turning against the Armenians; one day his farm is raided by Turkish soldiers, who kill all the men and force the women to walk, escorted by thieving guards, to a death camp in Syria. There is redemption – a man who used to inform on Armenians comes to the women’s aid – but the underlying history is a grim one. Sadly, however, the story is ruined by bad prose. The book is filled with irksome italicised sections, which needlessly tell you what will happen to characters later on, and the style is often mannered (‘The grapes from the small vineyards of the little city are large and sweet; the old man takes one and detects the dense scent of the flesh of Iskuhi, his radiant doe’). Ultimately, what should be a pacy, painful story is suffocated by overwriting.

The Descendants

By Kaui Hart Hemmings

Jonathan Cape 283pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is set in Hawaii. Matt King is a wealthy landowner whose life has collapsed: his fun-loving wife, Joanie, lies in a coma following a boating accident, and he discovers that she was having an affair. His children are wayward; teenaged Alexandra is a recovering drug-addict, while ten-year-old Scottie (a girl) has grown up too quickly, largely through lack of supervision. However, when Matt is told that Joanie’s life-support machine must be switched off, he decides that everyone must be allowed to say goodbye to her – including her lover.

Matt’s uselessness as a father, and his daughters’ dysfunctions, both seem overdone at first, but this is otherwise a promising debut. After the shaky opening, the novel develops warmth, as we see that Matt is genuinely distraught at the impending loss of Joanie and that the children’s callous disregard is a shield protecting their vulnerability. Hemmings also observes how children are prematurely aged by society, particularly sexually. Foul-mouthed Scottie wears a T-shirt with ‘Mrs Clooney’ on the front, which makes you wonder why they make them in her size; are we really encouraging a ten-year-old to desire a sex-life with a middle-aged man? Hemmings poses questions about modern America, and ultimately provides an atypical yet tender story of love.

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