Lucy Beresford Enjoys Five Atmospheric First Novels

  • Jhumpa Lahiri, 
  • Wendy Brandmark, 
  • Panos Karnezis, 
  • Audrey Niffenegger, 
  • Frances Itani

The Namesake

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Flamingo 291pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

IN HER SURE-FOOTED debut The Namesake  Jhumpa Lahiri (whose collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize) has written a luminous novel of great lyricism which celebrates the quiet achievements of family life. Charting thirty years in the lives of a Ben& family in suburban America, the narrative burns like a slow fuse and is utterly compelling. Gogol Ganguh, born in Boston and named after his father's literary hero, spends his first eighteen years loathing his unusual moniker Changing it to Nikhil, he fashions a new identity in a conscious attempt to reject his parents' resolutely Hindi existence. Despite embracing the all-American way, he marries Moushumi, a childhood acquaintance from another family of Bengali immigrants, but as the 'love'-marriage fails, he is forced to confront his past and accept the conflicts of his life. The novel is exquisitely paced, with not a word out of place. Lahiri's descriptions are both matter-of-fact and alluring, and there are countless images of almost heart-breaking simplicity. It makes a satisfying whole, rich in detail and with a narrative resounding with echoes that reinforce its themes of identity and the importance of ritual. This is a book to savour.

The Angry Gods

By Wendy Brandmark

Dewi Lewis 160pp £8.99 order from our bookshop

Don't be deceived by the size of Wendy Brandmark's The Angry Gods . It may be slim, but it is not said to punch above its weight and examine big themes such as prejudice, freedom, and the need to belong. Parallel narratives tell of Sofia and Helen, mother and daughter, women linked both by blood and the everyday humiliations each experiences journeying to womanhood. In 1950s New York, teacher Sonia defies her Jewish fdy by moving in with her splky colleague Irene and falling in love with Caleb, a divorced black poet. In 1972, at a confusing time in her own burgeoning sexual development, Helen discovers two photos showing her racist mother with an unknown black man. Brandmark's pared-down prose beautifully captures each woman's hstrations. Ashamed of her lover, and shamed bv her dl father, Sonia returns to the fdi fold; during summer vacation Helen falls for a man whose sexuahty is ambiguous. Although Helen's fiture may not be so compromised as her mother's by prejudice and social constraints, their stories suggest that true fieedom can prove elusive.

The Maze

By Panos Karnezis

Jonathan Cape 364pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The factual basis for Panos Karnezis's novel The Maze  is the retreat in 1922 of the Greek expeditionary force from Ottoman Asia Minor following a rout by Turkish forces. Brigadier Nestor (addicted to morphine and classical mythology) is attempting to lead his beleaguered troops through the labyrinthine desert to the coast. In addition to battling: with the shame of having ordered the massacre of villagers who may or may not have betrayed his brigade, Nestor is keen to discover who lies behind a series of these and the distribution of handbills preaching the new-fangled ideas of socialism. The story then shifts to an Armenian town run by a corrupt mayor who doubles as leader of the scout troop and is engaged to the owner of the town's brothel. Two executions later, and numerous characters will have reclaimed something of their dignity or destiny from the hell surrounding them. There is an intriguing story here, fighting to emerge from Karnezis's maze of similes, and hidden behind the aphorisms masquerading as dialogue.

The Time Traveler's Wife

By Audrey Niffenegger

Jonathan Cape 519pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

How might knowing the future determine the object of one's affections? That unusual quandary, along with other issues pertaining: to free will, lies at the heart of Audrey Niffenegger'ss structurally complex yet beguiling debut, The Time Traveler's Wife. It is an unabashed homage to love, a tear-jerker of the first d order which also happens to be an absorbing: existential exploration of 'being’ andt emporality. The central conceit is that Henry is a time traveller who, without warning, materialises at different times in his past: visiting a museum with his younger self, sometimes glimpsing his adored dead mother, and meeting his wife Clare when she is six and he is thirty-six. When, in 1991, Clare, aged twenty, enters the library in Chicago where Henry works (that is to say, encounters him in her present), she knows, even if he doesn't, that they have already met many times. As their passionate adult relationship progresses, Henry attempts, with medical assistance. to find a cure for his. and later his daughter Alba's, chrono-impairment. The innovative chronology of the powerfully depicted love story takes some getting used to, but it settles down, driven by the mystery of what befalls Henry at the age of forty-three. For all its surrealism, Niffenegger's of beat tale reinforces the lover's belief that love can endure almost anything.

Deafening

By Frances Itani

Sceptre 352pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

The pleasure to be found in Frances Itani's Deafening  lies in its unshowy prose - a remarkable achievement given that large chunks of the novel feature the overwhelming battlefield horrors of the First World War. Written to honour the author's own grandmother, it is an appropriately poised piece of fiction about Grania, who is rendered deaf at the age of five. Through the love found within her Toronto fdy and at a special school for the deaf, Grania learns to communicate, both orally and through sign language. Deftring the predictions of a patronising neighbour, Grania marries Jirn, a 'hearing person', just before he is posted to Europe as a stretcher-bearer. The book is a medltation on silence and communication, where the alienation and confusion of war become metaphors for the way in which language can be a minefield for the deaf. In a world filled with sound, Grania's story is a stirring reminder that human engagement occurs on various levels.

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