Simon Baker

Simon Baker on Four First Novels

  • Isabel Fonseca, 
  • Sadie Jones, 
  • James Miller, 
  • Alan Drew

Thanks to his father’s fame, Martin Amis received a vast amount of attention when he published his debut novel; thirty-five years on, his own fame is likely to ensure that his wife, Isabel Fonseca, receives a similar amount for her debut, Attachment, a novel about mid-life infidelity. Jean is a health columnist who discovers that her husband, Mark, an advertising executive, is having an affair with a young woman who has set up an email account for Mark to which she sends luridly pornographic photographs of herself. Jean, posing as Mark, emails the woman for some months, complimenting her and urging her on to greater erotic feats; she then has a revenge fling with one of Mark’s colleagues, before her father’s illness calls her back to her native New York.

Fonseca’s style is less piquant than her husband’s (‘sundering, epic loneliness’ is one of few standout Amisisms), but she also manages to avoid cliché and ugliness throughout the novel. However, there are problems. Too much of Mark’s story is given in summary instead of being dramatised, with the result that we cannot properly get to know him. It is also difficult to imagine that Mark and his mistress would never discuss the emails and thereby uncover Jean’s involvement. Perhaps because Fonseca recognises this, that storyline is quickly suppressed and the apparent affair (which isn’t what it seems) drifts awkwardly into the background. Despite this, there are many enjoyable moments here and some good, often highly witty, prose.

The Outcast, by Sadie Jones, is set in Waterford, a well-to-do fictional suburb in postwar England. When Lewis Aldridge’s mother dies in a swimming accident, Lewis’s father, Gilbert, clams up. He cannot bear Lewis’s grief and won’t discuss the loss with him; instead he remarries with indecent speed and sends Lewis to boarding school. Unsurprisingly, Lewis cannot thrive in these conditions. He becomes alternately withdrawn and violent, stifling his unhappiness with booze, self-harm and, eventually, a crime that leads to his imprisonment.

In this well-written novel, Jones adroitly captures the peevish hypocrisy of the age. Lewis is made to feel like an odd, weak person by his emotionally stunted father, while the latter’s violent, misogynistic boss (a man who habitually punches his own daughters) castigates Lewis for rough behaviour. Lewis is handsome as well as vulnerable, and his stepmother uses him to assuage her sense of boredom and personal failure. The question in this novel is whether Lewis will see, before he is permanently damaged, that the problems lie with others, not with him. One or two episodes seem over-choreographed, but even so this is a superb novel – diligently researched, thoughtfully characterised, and plotted so well that the reader’s only real difficulty is a desire to turn the pages too quickly.

Childhood trauma in affluent England is also the subject of Lost Boys, by James Miller. In this overtly ‘post-9/11’ novel, hundreds of boys, many from public schools, go missing over a short period. It seems as though they may have joined the war against the West; in a surreal twist, it also seems as though a Middle Eastern boy had been haunting their dreams beforehand. The action focuses on the disappearance of one boy, Timothy, and the search for him by his father, a man who made a fortune in the oilfields and is now suffering guilt over his neglectful parenting.

This is a novel about Western complicity in its own malaise (most of the missing boys’ families made money from those they feel morally superior to), and also about the deracinated, joyless life of the English teenager. These boys feel no communion with the green hills of England; instead, the level of pressure they feel and the absence of adventure from their lives cause them to yearn for exotic lands and people. Lost Boys makes interesting points here, but the foundations of the book are troublesome. It is hard to accept that the police would (or even could) suppress news of the disappearances to prevent nationwide panic, or to believe in boys who are as otherworldly as the ones in this novel. All this is a shame, since Miller’s prose is elegant and assured.

Gardens of Water, by Alan Drew, is set in Turkey in 1999, at the time of the Istanbul earthquake. It concerns two families, one Turkish-Kurd, one American, who are brought together by the disaster. When the earthquake occurs, Sarah, an American, is trapped for three days under rubble with ten-year-old İsmail, her neighbour. She feeds him all the rainwater that drips through to them, which saves İsmail but causes her to die. After İsmail recovers, his father, Sinan, struggles to make a living in the wreckage of his town and tries to resist help from Sarah’s widower. Sinan’s daughter falls in love with Sarah’s son, but cultural and religious clashes await the couple, demanding that they choose between their own people and a life with each other.

The author was living in Turkey at the time of the earthquake, and it is brilliantly realised in the novel. Sinan is a familiar character, a traditionalist who, underneath his reserve, is innately good-hearted, but nevertheless he and the others are well deployed in a compelling narrative. Gardens of Water is a book that, in its story of pain followed by redemption, can seem deterministic at times, but it is still a strong first novel which speaks of its author’s interest in people and surefooted instinct for storytelling.

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