Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski; Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold; Pynter Bender by Jacob Ross - review by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

October 2008 Debut Novels

  • Helen Fitzgerald, 
  • David Wroblewski, 
  • Gaynor Arnold, 
  • Jacob Ross

Dead Lovely

By Helen Fitzgerald

Faber & Faber 298pp £10.99

Of the four first novels under review this month, which take in a wide range of activities (from dog-training to drug-taking), Helen Fitzgerald’s Dead Lovely stands out as the freshest and most interesting new voice. It is, for a start, set in contemporary Scotland, and has a darkly witty, sardonic tone that is sustained throughout. Krissie is our heroine, a childcare expert whose own life is falling apart – she conceives a baby in a toilet cubicle whilst drugged up in Ibiza (‘Catholic guilt gave me the best sex of my life’). Her best friend since childhood, Sarah, is chic, controlling, and the perfect wife of slim, rich Kyle. Their house is perfect and their lifestyle is perfect, but they cannot conceive, and this becomes Sarah’s obsession. Fitzgerald’s book resembles Julia Leigh’s recent novel Disquiet in its stylish prose; a walk in the hills becomes filled with peril, whilst the various breakdowns of the characters are described with unflinching relish, ultimately revealing a shocking truth that lies in Krissie and Sarah’s past. The last third of the novel requires a little more suspension of disbelief, but we can forgive this, as Fitzgerald has written something startling, menacing and original. Never has the line ‘Today, he was going to spill the Ribena’ meant something quite so terrifying. Fitzgerald shows the savagery under our civilised demeanours which at any moment can come bursting through, with dire and far-reaching consequences.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

By David Wroblewski

Fourth Estate 566pp £12.99

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski comes garlanded with laurels from the United States; it clearly would very much like to be a Great American Novel. Full marks for trying, then: it moves along at an almost hypnotic pace, richly evoking the wilds of Wisconsin and the eerie farmhouse in which our eponymous (and unlucky) hero lives with his family, who breed a special strain of dog. The Sawtelles are not blessed with the good things in life: there are miscarriages, stillbirths, and then their child Edgar (their only hope) is born mute. Not long after, tragedy strikes again, and Wroblewski lays it on thick – a suspicious death, adultery, naughty alcoholic uncles with mysterious pasts, pneumonia, barn roofs coming off in hurricanes – you name it, it happens to the Sawtelles. There are two major problems with the book: one is that the only characters who truly come alive are the dogs. The reason for this is the spectre of research: Wroblewski has got so caught up with wanting to show off how much he knows about dogs that he has forgotten to flesh out the human elements of his plot (which is a sort of bastardised Hamlet, but with, er, dogs). The second problem is the portentousness of Wroblewski’s style, which is bursting with pleonasms: ‘The sleep that followed was black, nothing at all contained within it.’ Wroblewski does have interesting things to say about communication, especially concerning Edgar’s relationship with his dog Almondine; but these two shortcomings make the novel seem too much like an exercise in ‘creative writing’. If you would like to learn how to train a dog, then I thoroughly recommend it.

Girl in a Blue Dress

By Gaynor Arnold

Tindall Street Press 438pp £9.99

Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress was, somewhat mysteriously, longlisted for the Booker Prize. Arnold is excellent on the details of her setting, Victorian England, from which the widow of a famous writer looks back upon her life. The Public are lining the streets for Alfred Gibbons’s funeral cortège, in unparalleled scenes of grief. ‘Dodo’ is the widow in question, modelled on Charles Dickens’s wife; she is not, crucially, at the funeral, but sits in her modest parlour doing embroidery and putting pins in her hair. Whilst there are niceties of description, the major difficulty here is also one of style – it is written in a coy and often clichéd prose and, rather gratingly, mostly in the present tense. Dodo is unfortunately too tepid to care about. Even Gibbons, who is a stock ‘flamboyant’, becomes merely irritating. I have a feeling that Arnold would have been better off writing a biography of Dickens’s wife, which would at least have had the merit of teaching us something new; but I expect that a Sunday afternoon television adaptation will be made out of this, so we can all look forward to that.

Pynter Bender

By Jacob Ross

Fourth Estate 452pp £16.99

Pynter Bender by Jacob Ross is a rich, sensual, and moving slice of Caribbean life, following the birth of Grenada through the eyes of a small boy – Pynter Bender – who, though born blind, has his sight restored. Ross depicts movingly the trials of a boy growing up in a world of strong women, where the only man in his life is the dubious Uncle Birdie. Ross is a writer of enormous talent; the dusky, sultry cane fields, the bizarre and dangerous rituals of a village people, the effects of war and slavery upon human lives are all made vivid. Voices crackle ‘like parched leaves’, the moon slips down behind the hills ‘like a broken teardrop’. Reading the novel is like slipping into another world, with its own beautifully rendered patois, where time and other normal considerations do not matter at all – or rather should not; but, almost as soon as Pynter finds love, violence creepsx in, and he must face up to the new world that is encroaching upon him. An excellent debut that resonates long in the mind, full of hope and fire.

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