The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart's by Lesley Chamberlain; Going East by Matthew d'Ancona; Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes - review by Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford on First Novels

  • Gary Shteyngart's, 
  • Lesley Chamberlain, 
  • Matthew d'Ancona, 
  • Jennifer Vanderbes



The Russian Debutante's Handbook

By Gary Shteyngart's

Bloomsbury 452pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

THE AMERICAN DREAM and the post- Soviet mafia collide magnificently in Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook , an exuberant satire on capitalism. It charts the odyssey of Vladimir Girshkin, an immigrant Russian Jew, low in stature and self-esteem but with a vague resemblance to Trotsky. At the age of twenty-five, he is a humble clerk in downtown New York and a dsappointment to hs capitahst mother. Vladmir dumps his dominatrix girlfriend to date Francesca and infiltrate the comfortable existence of her liberal friends and family. Heavily in debt, he arranges a fake American citizenship for the psychotic Rybakov in return for a job with Rybakov's son, Groundhog, who runs a mafia gang in Prava, capital of Stolovaya (a fictional former Soviet-bloc state). Although he makes the fortune he craves (fleecing the expat community with hls pyramid investment scheme), Vladimir still finds himself a man without a country, not knowing where he belongs.

A loser in life, he has to vie for first place in his own story with the 'character' of Prava, as Shteyngart takes the reader on a rampant romp through this city: where ABBA stlll rules the dscos, where Road 66, a tacky American- themed restaurant, is the height of sophistication, and where expats come to escape and write poetry to appease their imperiahst guilt. It's a city symbohing reinvention, the leitmotiv of the immigrant, and a compelling backdrop to a novel about survival and the need to endure.

By Lesley Chamberlain

Atlantic 183pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

Written largely from the perspective of eleven-year-old Linka (christened Lynne-Caroline), Lesley Chamberlain's Girl in a Garden  takes an evocative look at childhood curiosity and desire, and makes inferences about what it means to grow up. With her short hair, clever Linka is the class tomboy. Happiest catching stoats and jumping off trees, she is also (by constructing first a den, then a camp) attempting, subconsciously, to create her own safe space in the world. For this is England in 1961, and change is in the air. New housing is being built and a new world order is being debated. Adult conversations feature either Communism, nuclear weapons and the Berlin Wall, or the inappropriate behaviour of Linka's racy mother, Ernma, who longs to escape society's Step$rd Wives-like expectations of her, and who finds sympathy in Henryk, the Polish rehgee who sdarly wants to embrace the sort of freedom which he achieves later in the book when he shares a threesome with Ernma and her sister Frieda. The 'political' backdrop reinforces the idea that growing up is a time of unfettered possibility, but Linka ghmpses the truth that reality imposes certain limitations. Nowhere is this more poignantly suggested than when Linka and her mother are bored and realise how limited the activities open to them are: Linka invents new games, Ernma threatens suicide. Therapists often talk of accessing the child within; Chamberlain writes with such clarity and understanding about human pain that she effortlessly reaches the hidden child in all of us.


Going East

By Matthew d'Ancona

Sceptre 406pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Going East , by Matthew d'Ancona, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, is about loneliness, the dispossessed, and the recuperative power of love. Mia Taylor's privileged life is ripped apart when a suspicious fire in her brother Ben's new house in London's East End kills all the members of her irnmedlate close-ht family. Devastated by grief, she abandons her old life as a strategy consultant, and mentor to rising political star Miles Anderton MP, and starts a new life working in Mile End, at the Echinacea Centre for alternative health. There she finds uncondtional acceptance fmm Sylvia, the Centre's harassed manager; Ringo, a record-shop owner brn Gujarat; and Rob, the new assistant who dreams of rnalung it big with his band. Nur~b~y tdhes e people, Mia begins to rebuild her shattered confidence. Two unexpected meetmgs (one with a woman who has lnfonnation about Mia's father, and the second with Mia's first lover) reveal unpleasant secrets which force her to confkont buried feehgs, and &cover the truth behind her family's immolation.

As one might hope, d'hcona has his finger on the pulse of contemporary society. He has put together an intriguing cocktail of thriller, satire and love story, with a lively cast of characters. The race to discover the identity of those involved in the deaths of Mia's relatives, before 'they' get to her, makes the book throb with cleverly plotted tension.

Easter Island

By Jennifer Vanderbes

Little, Brown 375pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes  is a beguiling synthesis of historical fact, ecology and fiction, beautifdly dovetailed to examine the ways in which people make sense of their past. For the protagonists, Easter Island (2,500 miles fiom the nearest landmass) offers escape. In the early 1970s, Greer, who is undertaking her first solo field research in pollen evolution, is trying to come to term with the death of her disgraced husband, Thomas, who falsified research data and appropriated material fi-om her own PhD dssertation. In 1914 Elsa, newly married to father-figure Edward, is replacing her suppressed desires for a former employer with research into the islanders' past which involves translating their mysterious wooden tablets of heroglyphcs. And Max, also known as Ahral von Spee, is seeking, at the outbreak of the First World War, safe passage back to Germany before the Ahes can destroy his fleet.

Vanderbes's writing is as meticulous as Greer's preparation of her equipment. Alongside the rich detail about pollen dspersal and evolution, she writes with originahty about the conflicting human impulses of withdrawal and attachment. Greer's and Elsa's stories are as much about self-discovery as about furthering scientific enquiry or answering historical conundrums. Both women must determine whether the capacity to love can survive in the barren soil left after betrayal, and Vanderbes is intelligent enough to leave the answer to this, as well as to Easter Island's many real-life mysteries, deliciously open-ended.


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