Politics by Adam Thirlwell; Mrs Sartoris by Elke Schmitter; Vernon God Little by D B C Pierre; My Name is Sei Shonagon by Jan Blensdorf; Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle - review by Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford

October 2003 Debut Novels

  • Adam Thirlwell, 
  • Elke Schmitter, 
  • D B C Pierre, 
  • Jan Blensdorf, 
  • Rod Liddle


By Adam Thirlwell

Jonathan Cape 279pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Politics by Adam Thirlwell (the youngest of this year's Granta Best Young Novelists) is a psychotherapist's wet dream: sexually explicit and analytical. It purports to be a modern romance. By romance, I expect you to infer the conventional (as signalled by the chapter headings) boy-meets-girl, boy-losesgirl, will-boy-retrieve-girl? sort of thing, which Thirlwell delivers with arresting aplomb. Moshe, an actor, meets Nana, cherished daughter of Papa and student of architecture. Over time, they fall in love. They have a mutual friend, Anjali. In cocksure prose, Thirlwell scrutinises their relationships, which are conducted an'longst the happening and scuzzier enclaves of London. They speak the worldweary, elliptical vernacular of today's youth, and worry about 'people-pleasing'. Oh, and the modern bit? Did you have to ask? Well, that's my reviewer's nod to the graphic scenes of bondage, rimming, fisting, thrush secretions, urinating during sex and, above all, threesomes (as well as a few other things I'd never heard of. Honest.). But Thirlwell's audacious debut is also very self-consciously post-modern. Its yappy, intrusive narrator tries (and often fails) to steer our sympathies towards characters he believes are likeable. It is, in fact, an anti-romance, a dissection of se>..'Ual politics, and a sophisticated experiment: using clinical realism, it explores what is acceptable in contemporary literature whilst examining the gaps between the sexes, and between our i1mer and outer selves. It reveals Thirlwell's formidable intelligence and erudition, but it is also Men Are from Mars ... on Ecstasy. As such, it ends up being strangely unsatisfying.

Mrs Sartoris

By Elke Schmitter

Faber & Faber 143pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

The haunting power of Elke Schmitter's novel Mrs Sartoris will creep up on you like the twilight in its atmospheric opening. Compact and exquisitely crafted, it is a story of rupture and revenge, whose aftershocks resonate and stir the imagination. In a lilting stream of consciousness, we learn about Margarethe, an impulsive, vulnerable, middle-aged woman from a small German town, whose emotional stability is disturbed by the abrupt termination of a love affair with Philip. A nervous breakdown ensues. To be revenged for the humiliation, and to trump the newspaper announcement of Philip's engagement, Margarethe marries Ernst. Later, when their truculent daughter Daniela is in her teens, Margarethe embarks on an affair and makes plans to leave Ernst. Punctuating this narrative are paragraphs concerning a hit-and-run fatality. The victim is gradually revealed to be c01mected with Daniela; we know that Margarethe was behind the wheel. The novel's slight size belies the scope of its psychological terrain. Schmitter captures precisely the nuances of sexual obsession, and the gnawing legacy of emotional hurt. This is a chillingly accurate picture of self-deception and self-destructive behaviour.

Vernon God Little

By D B C Pierre

Faber & Faber 279pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

A sharply observed satire on contemporary American life · underpins D B C Pierre's brazen debut, Vernon God Little. Foul-mouthed Vernon is wrongly accused of a high-school massacre in his white-trash home town of Martirio, Texas. Among the dead lies the actual architect of the tragedy, Vernon's bullied buddy, Jesus. Scapegoated by the community and exploited by Ledesma, an electrician passing himself off as a CNN reporter, Vernon goes on the run. After a sting involving his high-school lust-object, he is captured in Acapulco and sent for trial in Houston. Thanks to the media hype surrounding his story, Vernon becomes a celebrity on a Big Brother-style death row, and Martirio, a town formerly famous only for its barbecue sauce, suddenly has the world's fastest economic growth rate.

Pierre is good at delineating the petty rivalries and preoccupations of Vernon's mother and her friends - a running gag concerning the inuninent delivery of a posh fridge conveys the emotional pain of poverty. But the real triumph lies in Pierre's creation of Vernon, a mouthpiece for today's disaffected teenagers, trying to understand a world which fails to live up to the airbrushed one presented in movies and on television. Although references to Internet child pornography, junk food, homophobia and gunculture might make The Catcher in the Rye seem remote, in his credible articulation of Vernon's existential angst Pierre has created an invigorating heir to Holden Caulfield.

My Name is Sei Shonagon

By Jan Blensdorf

Chatto & Windus 152pp £10. 99 order from our bookshop

The wistful narrator of Jan Blensdorf's My Name is Sei Shonagon lies in a coma, mentally addressing someone whose identity we discover only on the final page of this delicate novel. Blensdorf, an Australian, has written a poetic tale about the social constraints and collective unconscious of modern Japan, through the story of one Japanese-American woman's attempts to survive the traumas of her past. Like the Japanese calligraphy the narrator is taught, Blensdorf's sparse prose creates word-paintings of great subtlety.

Too Beautiful for You

By Rod Liddle

Century 261pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle (erstwhile Today programme editor) presents the - largely sexual - preoccupations of a group of self-absorbed, extremely loosely connected Londoners. Each crisply written chapter can stand alone, but' echoes from one feature in others. The opening story sets Marian's resentment towards an absent window-repair man against Dempsey's desire to commit suicide after a failed love affair. In others, Emily sleeps with a drunk Romanian refugee; Eddie has it off with his mother-in-law; and Christian, who loses an arm in a train crash, struggles to prevent his wife discovering his infidelity. Liddle revels in lampooning political correctness, as in the story of Engin, the hapless suicide bomber. Its author being a media man to his fingertips, the book is also sprinkled with 'names', particularly in the tale of Mick, who inugines he is befog observed having sex by an eclectic group including Jack Straw, Dr Rowan Williams and Jeremy Vine. It is a surreal debut, fizzing with beautifully observed riffs on aspects of modern relationships, and one which is genuinely amusing without appearing to try too hard.

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