Regina Porter’s remarkable debut novel leads us on a journey through America’s mottled history, beginning in the aftermath of the Second World War and ending in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. It’s a story told through the tangled lives of a host of characters – black, white, straight, gay, navy veterans, Shakespeare scholars, firemen, adulterous spouses, cannery workers and amateur pilots. Porter’s is a cacophonous vision that continually recalls the playwright Tony Kushner’s characterisation of America as ‘the melting pot where nothing melted’.
There is a confidence to Porter’s writing that makes it hard to believe that this is her first novel. She depicts racial intolerance and violence bluntly, from a white family’s surprise at seeing a black family move in next door to the rape by two policemen of a young black woman in Georgia. The latter is not described graphically but alluded to in casual, sickening details: the burly officer’s fingers ‘tickling the rifle’; his ‘easy, cheerful smile’; the ‘deep night blush’ on one of the policeman’s cheeks as he returns from the forest with his victim.
Porter’s story also has a hopeful side, and her writing is peppered with disarmingly warm, witty turns of phrase. A reverend gives his Sunday sermon while shaking a tambourine ‘to keep the preaching zesty’. One character is described as ‘a first-class lesbian born too early in the game to live her life openly’. For another, ‘being penetrated by a man was [her] idea of being nailed to a cross. She could not see the logic in that kind of suffering.’
Moments of clunking prose – ‘his feelings were as mixed as their skin’; ‘rage confused his body’ – can be forgiven in a novel as otherwise accomplished as this. The Travelers succeeds because Porter is so clear-eyed when documenting human interactions, the mass of particularities amounting to a gloriously and depressingly messy picture of life in America.
Asghar and Zahra are, in more than one sense, strangers at their own wedding. Not only have the bride and groom been on just two short dates before getting engaged, but throughout the chaotic day they hardly see one another. They sit in separate sections of the mosque while Zahra’s vows are spoken by a male representative. Zahra is forced to wolf down biryani in a corridor to avoid debasing herself by eating in front of her guests. Her maid-of-honour is not her best friend but a distant relative from Minnesota who spends the day continually applying lip gloss to Zahra’s ‘already practically dripping’ lips with neurotic tenacity.
Sameer Rahim’s debut novel is a tragicomic account of a doomed marriage. We soon learn that the awkward wedding was not a bump in the road but a sign of things to come. Asghar is a nervous, devout young man with few friends and even fewer interests, who couldn’t believe his luck when his proposal was accepted by Zahra, an attractive and outgoing Cambridge graduate. Once they are married and living together, their substantial differences become glaringly obvious.
Rahim nails the complexity of trying to negotiate numerous identities at once. Despite Zahra’s instinctive aversion to religious tradition, she feels equal resentment at the notion that she must abandon her Muslim heritage to become fully ‘Western’. The result is that she sees traditionalism, paradoxically, as a kind of revolt, musing that ‘there’s something cool about rebelling against the rebellion everyone expects’.
A union that is so plainly damned from the start hardly makes for edge-of-the-seat intrigue; instead, it is Rahim’s wit that propels his novel. Asghar and Zahra sends up everything from piety to quintessential ‘Englishness’ and casual Islamophobia. Zahra’s admission that she once ate non-halal chicken prompts a shocked Asghar to ask what it tasted like. ‘Exactly the same!’ she replies, ‘except it was cooked by English people, so it was bland as hell.’
Sometimes billed as the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Twitter’, Brian Bilston has now written a novel on the back of the snappy, irreverent poems he fires out on the social media platform. Part-diary, part-poetry collection, Bilston’s book is structured around his New Year’s resolution to write a poem a day for a year. On 9 January, his poetry group has its monthly gathering:
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.
This is to some extent a novel about being dissatisfied with life. Bilston feels himself ‘slowly fading into jobsolescence’, so he decides to quit his office job and become a full-time poet. At this point he is already tormented by his poetry club nemesis, Toby Salt. This pound-shop Percy Shelley’s pretentious drivel – ‘O Aeolian confidante! Dry my salty locks/and whisper the world into my ear’ – somehow lands him a book deal with an ‘artisan publishing house’, much to Bilston’s chagrin. The novel then takes an unexpected swerve when Salt goes missing and fingers are pointed at our not-so-Byronic hero.
As clever as Bilston’s poems are, four hundred pages of Bilstonic verse would start to grate. Fortunately, the diary entries do the heavy lifting. Bilston has perfected his comic voice, which brings to mind a bitter man-child with spades of misanthropic charm and a dash of Alan Partridge-esque pedantry. This is a comic novel of the highest order.