Imagine Oscar Wilde meeting James Bond. You can’t? Then read The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss (co-creator of The League of Gentlemen) and prepare for amusing enlightenment. By day Lucifer Box, Gatiss’s bisexual Edwardian hero, is an artist living at 9 Downing Street – ostentatious, but ‘somebody has to live there’. By night, he’s in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government, part detective, part assassin. In the course of his investigations into a diplomat’s murder, the mysterious deaths of two eminent scientists, and the vanishing of an art student, Lucifer ingeniously defies numerous attempts on his life before arriving in Naples, where he stumbles on homosexual orgies, opium dens, and plots to destroy the planet (all the while pursuing the delightful Bella Pok). Lucifer and his world leap off the page fully realised – the book is a sort of Harry Potter for adults, with espionage replacing wizardry. He receives his briefings in secret toilet cubicles at the Royal Academy, dresses fastidiously, and suffers from seasickness. His intimate narrative style is full of droll puns, lively similes, and snobbish asides. Ignore Gatiss’s self-deprecating suggestion that his novel (mocked up to look cloth-bound) is ‘a bit of fluff’: this is exuberant, well-written entertainment, and merits a sequel.
In Sayonara Bar, Susan Barker’s debut, the lives of three characters living in contemporary Osaka are ruptured by murky, ‘underground’ events. The bar of the novel’s title, a hostess club run by Mama-san in the seedy suburb of Shinsaibashi, loosely connects the trio: Mary, a tall blonde English girl whose fluency in Japanese has landed her a job as a hostess and a place in the bed of Mama-san’s son Yuji, runner for a kingpin in the city’s drugs mafia; Watanabe, the bar’s vaguely autistic chef, who believes himself a higher being, capable of anatomically precise extra-sensory perception; and Mr Sato, a ‘salaryman’ and reluctant client of the lounge, who is later befriended by a hostess claiming to have nightmares about his dead wife. The structure of the novel, which is divided into separate narratives, underscores its themes of disconnection and loneliness. With dry humour and crisp observation, Barker conveys the inner chaos masked by the external regimens of a society where intimacy is contrived, and loyalty is strained. Japan has not, for a long time, been made to seem so accessible, or so remote.
That one of the characters in Rana Dasgupta’s novel Tokyo Cancelled is the love child of Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese, and turns into a Madison Avenue store when she eats Oreo cookies, gives you the measure of Dasgupta’s particularly inventive mind. Whether the writings here constitute a novel is a moot point. He links thirteen separate stories told by thirteen unrelated people who find themselves stranded in an unnamed airport, en route to snowbound Tokyo. Just as the narrators are cut off from everything, so their protagonists are invariably isolated personally. The stories focus on ambition and disappointment, and are rooted in the contemporary (brand names abound) yet embrace the fantastic: a slumbering daughter triggers outbreaks of fertility across India; a London company repackages pleasant memories on CD-ROM for a world whose memory is failing; and a Frankfurt map-maker calculates the unique value of every point on the planet. This is boldly written fantasy on a global scale.
The civil war in Sierra Leone provides the horrific backdrop in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s debut, Moses, Citizen & Me – her understated prose a foil to the bleak and disturbing subject matter. Summoned from London to the village of her grandfather Moses, Julia longs to establish a relationship with her withdrawn eight-year-old cousin Citizen, who has been traumatised by his life as a child soldier, and in particular by murdering his grandmother, Adele. In the bush, Julia discovers a compound run by the enigmatic Bemba G, where former child soldiers can find food, mental stimulation, and, above all, compassion. When Bemba encourages the thirty-five children in his care to put on a public performance of Julius Caesar, he initiates a process of healing on many levels, as both cast and audience are forced to confront the tragedy of Sierra Leone’s recent past, and the possibility of hope and redemption. Jarrett-Macauley sensitively establishes Julia’s family as a microcosm of the ruptured nation, as Moses struggles to embrace the relative who killed his wife, and Shakespeare proves an inspirational and uplifting agent of therapy.
History – as seen in Conspirators, Michael André Bernstein’s formidable yet utterly absorbing debut – can be explained just as much by personalities as by events. In an appropriately serpentine narrative, grounded in a richly detailed understanding of interpersonal dynamics, Bernstein brings to life the period of social unrest of 1912 to 1914 in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a backwater near the Russian border, radical socialism and anti-Semitism are on the increase; in a hovel in the Jewish Quarter, a group of affluent potential saboteurs led by Hans (son of the Empire’s wealthiest Jew) plan an act of terrorism; and a charismatic rabbi arrives in town preaching subversion. From the prologue we know that murder was committed in the cathedral square. Who dies, and at whose hand, is not revealed until the final thirty pages. Full of suspense, and thick with an atmosphere of intrigue, suspicion and betrayal, the narrative also possesses a sly humour, especially in the portrayal of the paranoid regional governor Count Wiladowski, who, with his Jewish spymaster Tausk, attempts to evade assassination. Through a tale about divided loyalties and the human need to belong, Bernstein has written a profound indictment of racism and of the legitimisation of murder.