In Golden Child, Claire Adam tells the story of a struggling family in rural Trinidad: Clyde, Joy and twin boys, teenagers Peter and Paul. The country she depicts is not the Caribbean idyll we are accustomed to. Here, ‘once the cricket has finished, the cards come out, then bottles of rum, wads of money’ – this is a place where bad things can happen to good people.
The family are on edge. Joy’s jewellery has been stolen during an armed break-in. The close-knit community around them is unsure how to react. Rumour has it that the group responsible is ‘not just one of the little Boyz on the Block-type gangs’ but a more sinister outfit. Then Paul doesn’t come home one evening and Peter is adamant that he’s not out at a nightclub, as his parents suspect.
The brothers are growing up to be more different than their parents would care to admit. Peter is destined for ‘Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, all of them’. Paul, a few minutes younger than his twin, cried unceasingly as a baby and is a restless, troubled young man. When he fails to reappear, Clyde’s mantra that ‘if you just rely on yourself, and live an honest kind of life … it will pay dividends’ is put to the test.
Adam’s compelling tale, which flits between episodes in the brothers’ childhoods and the present day search for Paul, evokes the idiosyncrasies of Trinidadian life. We see this in the unselfconscious shabbiness of Uncle Vishnu, the respected doctor and fairy godfather to the boys, in Sister Frances, their primary school headmistress who teaches with the aid of Junior Mathematics for the Caribbean, and even in Romesh, Clyde’s roguish brother-in-law, who has an unhealthy thirst for Carib, the local beer. The quiet warmth with which she relays these elements, matched by an unaffected writing style, make the story of the family’s trauma all the more unsettling.
By the time Marwand, aged twelve, travels from the USA to the family home in Logar, Afghanistan, paying his first visit in six years, he has forgotten most of his Pashto and cannot speak a word of Farsi. He has not seen any of the cousins, uncles or grandparents who have assembled for his arrival since 1999. Now it is 2005 and they seem like strangers.
In 99 Nights in Logar, Jamil Jan Kochai describes how this young Afghan-American boy must first navigate the complex traditions of his native country and then, when the family guard dog, Budabash, goes missing, its perilous landscape. With his cousins Gul, Zia and Dawood, none older than fourteen, he embarks on a search (though he has been given strict instructions by his oldest uncle to stay behind) in which he comes across butchers, soldiers, thieves and Ts (the Taliban).
The story Kochai doesn’t have to tell is the one we know already – of the war between the Ts and NATO. In Logar, it’s background noise: ‘same thing used to happen in the eighties,’ says one of Marwand’s uncles.
As in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Kochai uses the viewpoint of a child to shape a narrative that presents the realities of war with a degree of innocence. But where Hosseini shocks, Kochai, whose band of teenagers are loutish, naughty and effortlessly funny, has a rarer talent: he makes us laugh.
Wherever Muscle’s principal characters, two heavies called _____ (sic) and Box, go, violence tends to follow. This suits them fine: they’re usually the ones who’ve caused it. On the prowl in a city pulled straight from a Tarantino film, they smoke, drink, beat people up for money and gamble it all away in a cycle that could be tedious yet in Alan Trotter’s hands is anything but.
_____ is short and wiry, chain-smoking and fast-talking. Box is tall and thickset: he drinks little and talks less. This unusual pair share a dilapidated apartment block with an alcoholic building manager, his wife and a cocky young writer of pulp fiction called Holcomb. Box, who narrates, drags you into a world where everyone is either a criminal or a crook (with names like Mike Swagger, Private Detective) and where it is completely normal to earn a living doing odd jobs for the local mob boss, Jarecki. Eventually work dries up, then the different narratives collide in a climax as clever as it is gruesome. For our narrator, a man not easily shaken, the twists and turns of the plot are as much a surprise to him as they are to us.
Amid the violence and vendettas, it’s the intricate, razor-sharp prose that really hits you. While spying on an unsuspecting victim, Box notes the sky: ‘One cloud looked like maybe a fraction of the turn of an ankle going into a high-heeled shoe. Another looked like the rear of a crashed car.’ Reading Muscle is like being thwacked in the stomach by Marlon Brando after he has just recited the works of Milton from memory.
In Rapid City, South Dakota, a former ballerina with the Ballets Russes teaches two children, René and Leon, how to dance. Their mother, Eve, marvels at their talent and enthusiasm. Al, their cattle-trading, frequently absent father, dotes on his daughter but chides Leon for his ‘ridiculous’ obsession.
Paula Saunders’s The Distance Home starts with ‘the end’: Leon, whose descent into alcoholism and drug addiction punctuates the course of the novel, is long dead; Al has passed away; now René and her younger sister, Jayne, are driving through the state they left years ago to bury their mother’s ashes beside those of their father and brother. For René, Eve’s death also marks a ‘beginning’. We spend the rest of the book learning why. René was her daddy’s favourite, the one who escaped Rapid City to study ballet and made the other girls at school jealous with a flick of her hair. Leon, by contrast, was forever an outcast, even in his own home. His problems start with a stammer and end, after a litany of horrors, with the fatal bursting of a blood vessel at the age of forty-two.
Saunders is married to the Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders. Like her husband, she explores the hold the past might exert over a person. In The Distance Home, the guilt René feels for her brother’s death hangs over the novel. It has a real-world significance: Saunders’s own brother struggled with addiction throughout his life. Although occasionally she includes some heavy-handed imagery – the phrases ‘a smouldering pit of loss’, ‘pools of … blood’ and ‘a bottomless pool of hurt’ all appear on one page – Saunders’s eye for tragic detail, especially concerning René’s gradual loss of innocence as a child, more than compensates.