Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff; The Average Human by Ellen Toby-Potter; Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy; A Good Voyage by Katherine Davies; Santiago's Way by Patricia Laurent - review by Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford on First Novels

  • Bruce Murkoff, 
  • Ellen Toby-Potter, 
  • Maile Meloy, 
  • Katherine Davies, 
  • Patricia Laurent


By Bruce Murkoff

Secker & Warburg 397pp order from our bookshop

NOVELS WITH SOMETHING fresh to say about the American dream are few. Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff is a worthy addition to their number. It is 1932: Filius, a dam engineer, is grieving the loss of his young son in a boating accident: Lena has walked out on her bigamist husband and is travelling with her son Burr to join her flirtatious friend Fanny; and Lew is a feisty, vertically challenged Jew. The first half of the novel follows these three emotionally damaged individuals as they make their separate ways to Boulder, Colorado, where the river is to be tamed by the construction of the world's largest dam. Murkoff's American dream is of repeneration. his Midwest a brave new world where neighbors offer lifts and return favours. In the story of Filius and Lena (who meet), his focus is the power of friendship and love to engender hope; in Lew's, it is about the tragedy of inappropriate dreams. Minor characters live beyond the page. The booming desert states, defining the Depression, are magnificently evoked, but Murkoff is equally skilled at capturing the poignancy of small, everyday things too. A glorious achievement.


The Average Human

By Ellen Toby-Potter

Vintage 260pp £6.99 order from our bookshop

Incest also features strongly in Ellen Toby-Potter's The Average Human, a gothic tale of legacies. The Mayborn dynasty, residing in an upstate backwater, is cursed. Regarded by the gossipy townsfolk as dirty, no-good pagans, they have been tarnished forever generations with rumours of incest and infanticide. Women in the family are susceptible to a blackening mutation of their fingernails. Long ago, the town pond dried up. Were the despised Mayborns responsible? Or was it the hippies ho founded a commune and were said to dance Led in the water? These and other questions haunt the narrative. The prologue promises a mystery about the contents of a dying man's papers; the novel deals with characters tainted by the past and struggling with their own desires, particularly fourteen year old June Mayborn who, with her animal-like heightened sense of smell and her predilection for wearing gold or yellow, symbolises the primitive and the potential in all of us. Using insight and black humour, Toby- Potter has written a memorable story about prejudice involving a quirky yet engaging cast of life's losers.

Liars and Saints

By Maile Meloy

John Murray 260pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

A plot summary of Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints  could never do this novel justice. It would read too much like the scenario of a clichéd soap opera, as incest, bondage, unplanned pregnancies, infertility, lesbianism, cancer and murder send shockwaves through four generations of the middle-class Santerre family, American Catholics already grappling with jealousy, deceit, religion, and forgiveness. Narrowly avoiding melodrama. the novel's success lies in Melov's emotional literacy. There is an unflashy intelligence underpinning her writing (whether she is exploring sibling rivalry, marital discord, or a crisis of faith) which makes her ordinary, flawed characters breathe. Lies and their consequences propel the plot convincingly, beginning with the choices made by beautiful Yvette (to tell her husband about a drunken kiss with a photographer, but later to conceal from him their daughter's teenage pregnancy). As tragedies repeat themselves, it falls to Gail, sometime girlfriend to Yvette's grandson, to articulate the moral core of this story: that people's purpose is to love each other. In its examination of the gap between faith and fire will. Melov has written a compelling debut about the search for truth.'


A Good Voyage

By Katherine Davies

Chatto & Windus 295pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Katharine Davies's A Good Voyage  is a contemporary take on Twelfth Night, exploring the madness of love, gender-bending, and denial. Devastated by her twin brother Jonathan's decision to return to their childhood home of Sri Lanka, aspiring writer Valentina impulsively cuts off her long hair and takes a job as gardener to Leo, a musician in the remote fictional village of Illerwick. Various love triangles ensue. Leo worships Melody, a headmistress mourning the suicide of her brother; Mr Boase loves Melody too, but Melody falls for boyish-looking Valentina, who . . . you've guessed it, adores Leo. A school production of TweIfth Night and a party for Leo's thirtieth birthday in the redesigned garden provide the settings for undeclared passion, disappointments and savage humiliation before Jonathan (somewhat improbably) arrives to trigger happy endings to some (but not all) of the relationships. Davies admirably conjures up the wild beauty of Illerwick's coastal landscape. Her characterisation is less credible, but then the dot itself is faintly ludicrous. What does come across rather well is a wise sense of the end of youth.

Santiago's Way

By Patricia Laurent

Peter Owen 112pp £12.50 order from our bookshop

Mexican writer Patricia Laurent's daring novella, Santiago's Way, is a taut presentation of the pain and disturbed logic inside a fragmented mind. After a failed suicide attempt at fourteen, the enigmatic, unnamed female narrator imagines that Mina (the primitive part of her psyche) has been usurped by Santiago, whose authority over her mind and behaviour is both terrifying and alluring. Unable to understand normal codes of behaviour, the narrator has always been patently dysfunctional. The scenes where she attempts to copy the behaviour of her sib- are, in their depiction of her immature logic and its disastrous consequences, almost unbearable. The straightforward presentation of the narrator is the most commendable aspect of this novel, since Laurent makes no direct attempt to explain the woman's personality disorder, although there are enough clues about her family (a detached mother, a punitive father who offers tips on how to ensure her next suicide attempt is successful to make armchair analysis satisfyingly possible. Laurent cuts through the mystique of mental illness to write vividly and with compassion about an internal odyssey in search of refuge from the pain of reality.


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