THE HONEYMOON by Justin Haythe is the subtle story of one woman's destructive influence on her son. It isn't billed as such: one infers from the publishers' blurb that the novel will chart the relationship between compliant American Gordon and his wife, Annie. But as Gordon, aged just twenty-one, relates the events of his life (from his peripatetic feast-or-famine childhood - spent being dragged around European art galleries by his mother Maureen, who writes cultural travel books - to his impulsive liaison with Annie), his mother comes to dominate. Even Annie and Gordon's delayed honeymoon is hijacked by Maureen and her latest beau, in an episode which culminates in an act of venom all the more shocking for Haythe's nuanced presentation of the pathological narcissism and envy which motivate it. Haythe's prose is equally assured: Gordon's measured delivery, deadpan to the point of his seeming clinically depressed, conveys a person whose sense of self has been suffocated out of him. Gordon drifts through life as he did the art galleries, half-heartedly trying to make it as a photographer, feeling he has let his mother down: 'I was not', he admits, 'the sort of companion she wanted.' This is a novel about longing and disappointment, in which the Jamesian theme of affluent Americans abroad is elegantly reworked.
A sense of ambiguity haunts Lewis DeSoto's grave debut, A Blade of Grass, set in an Afrikaner farming community. DeSoto's literary territory is an apartheid-riddled 'land of separations', which he marks out as a place of stunning geography harbouring tragedy and despair. The story, told in the present tense, is a parable of a beautiful country ripped apart by rules and religion, where the fragility of hope is symbolised by the thin green shoots grown from five seeds planted at the novel's opening and close. Marit's parents die in her mid-twenties. Three months later she marries Ben, an Englishman who has come to South Africa to embrace as a farmer the potential of its land. Being mistress of the farm sits uneasily with Marit, as do the national politics of segregation. Widowed by an act of terrorism, she finds herself the inexperienced baas of the farm and its entire black workforce. In her grief, she turns for support to her maid Tembi, initiating a sisterly relationship which supplies the novel's emotional weight, and against which DeSoto tests the bigotry and moral limitations on both sides of the racial divide. Some may quibble that the novel's backdrop (of civil war) is historically inaccurate - or perhaps this is DeSoto's warning that South Africa might still go the way of Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, this is an interesting examination of the price of the personal and public struggles to bring about ideological change.
An outline of the plot of David Maine's The Flood might be unnecessary: aged man (Noe) builds massive boat on instruction from a higher authority; installs family, together every creature; and survives globally devastating deluge. Later, same man (again under instruction) sends his three sons off to repopulate the world. The tale may be exceptionally old, but Maine's treatment has a contemporary texture, successfully recasting the drama as a psychological portrait of an ordinary family. Sibling rivalry between Noe's sons evident, as is a certain resignation on the part of Noe's wife (primarily because her husband can never be bothered to use her proper name). Sem, the eldest son, has slavishly adopted his father's devotion to the deity Yahweh; Cham and Japheth are more sceptical. Their respective wives are pleasant, far more intelligent than their husbands give them credit for, and barren; one marvellously Darwinian in her intellectual curiosity. Together with the irascible patriarch Noe, this family builds the ark, collects the animals, and lives the miracle. The rainbow makes a cameo, as does a curse. In story whose ending is familiar, characterisation is key, Maine's cast steps off the page. These are anxious people like you and me, curious and, above all, bewildered: Why would God destroy his own creations? What kind of God does this? With gentle humour and sensitive use of modern idiom, Maine combines the theological with the existential to poignant effect.
Back to Africa for Melanie Finn's beautifully constructed debut, an insightful tale about one woman's unexpected journey to confront her past. Written from subtly shifting perspectives, Away From You follows Ellie's return after twenty-five years to Kenya, where she spent a bruising childhood with her alcoholic father, John, and cowed mother, Helen. Part gentle satire on the white elite of colonial East Africa, part critique of the social chaos of present day Kenya, Away From You is also a gripping mystery. John, now dead, has bequeathed Ellie a fortune overseas and a box of seemingly inconsequential papers. Taking the money as evidence of illegal practices, Ellie resolves to discover the truth about John. Her unresolved anger burns through the writing, -and is expressed not just in her desire to implicate her father in two murders (including that of his lover, the next-door neighbour Eileen) but also in her emotional detachment. Yet the more she attempts to prove her theories, the more she comes to understand about waste and unhappiness, blame and forgiveness - with regard to John, herself, and Africa. Finn has written with such care and commitment to her characters and the geography they inhabit that I had to slow myself down towards the end to prolong the pleasure of reading her.