In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the naiad Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree to escape the lustful attentions of the god Apollo. Will Boast’s debut novel is something like a modern retelling of her story.
His Daphne, a lab supervisor in San Francisco at the start of this decade, doesn’t quite turn into a tree. Instead, she suffers from a real-life condition that leaves her ‘paralyzed by emotion’. Subtler sensations, such as the ‘oddly poignant remorse and self-reproach’ you feel when you just miss a train, might make her knees go weak. Rage and hysterical laughter cause her whole body to freeze and fall.
She retreats from emotional entanglements, devoting herself to work, where, with some irony, she is responsible for testing heart-repairing technology on dogs. That careful equilibrium is disrupted when a chance encounter leads her into a relationship with her Apollo, the socially conscious hipster electrician Ollie.
Attending to the material contours of her privileged millennial lifestyle in numbing detail, Daphne maintains an Olympian distance from contemporary political convulsions. The links Boast draws between Daphne’s resistance to emotional commitments and her political disengagement are wittily but a little obviously done: ‘NATO started bombing Libya. Ollie and I went to a beatboxing concert in the basement of a shop that sold antique typewriters.’
Boast’s real forte is the evocation of emotion, whether that be the ‘gust of affection’ that can hit you in the early days of a new relationship or the ‘trough of sorrow’ we tend to drink from when one has ended. For all that Daphne is sleek and artful, it is also quite touching.
Emma Glass’s slim but weighty first novel also dramatises the ways powerful emotions evaded or repressed make themselves powerfully felt. Narrator Peach is a teenage girl who, as the book opens, has just been raped. She describes the days following the assault in a rhythmic, alliterative stream of consciousness. Hospital nurses, for instance, are ‘silver silent spectres’ sailing ‘silent as they dance, slow and shy’.
The ostensible playfulness of the language is matched by cartoonish perceptions of the world around her. She doesn’t just resemble a peach, she appears to be one; her attacker, Lincoln, is a sausage. This childishness is to a certain extent poignant, a retreat into comforting imagery in the wake of trauma. At least it would be if it weren’t so sinister. The description of Peach as ‘smothered in grease from his slippery slimy sausage fingers’ convincingly evokes the shame and self-disgust a rape victim might feel.
As in Max Porter’s similarly slim Grief is the Thing with Feathers, or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, experimentation with form is used to communicate unspeakable experiences. But although Peach addresses her ordeal obliquely, her account is at other times so vivid as to be uncomfortable. A practising nurse, Glass brings a professional straightforwardness to the description of Peach sewing her vagina shut in the immediate aftermath of the attack: ‘I hold the cold skin together with two fingers. Tug the thread. Suck the ice. Point the needle. Push it in.’ Whichever way you look at it, Peach is a difficult read for such a short book. Given its subject matter, it ought to be.
The unnamed narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s Sight confronts her experiences of motherhood and of traumas such as her own mother’s death with bracing directness. Personal recollections are interspersed with reflections on aspects of medical history, including Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895 and Sigmund Freud’s relationship with his daughter Anna.
What these historical subjects share is a preoccupation with getting to the essential truth of our bodies and our psyches. For people in the late 19th century, as the narrator puts it, X-rays held out the hope that ‘far from the troublesome corporeality of bodies being obscured … they might themselves become transparent, giving up their secrets to a gaze’. A similar searching intelligence is applied to the narrator’s own life and emotions.
The effect can be clumsy, with every action or incident placed under the microscope of her attention as she attempts to understand its significance. Not holding her partner’s hand during an ultrasound becomes ‘a subtle marker of some already prevalent inadequacy in me, indelibly wrought, that I should put my own comfort first’.
In the end, this dogged fumbling after truth is what makes the book remarkable and affecting. The narrator’s psychoanalyst grandmother taught her that ‘without reflection we do little more than drift upon the surface of things’. Despite knowing how futile this endeavour can be, she perseveres. We may never understand the reasons behind our own feelings, let alone other people’s, she believes, but must still ‘try, somehow, to find out’.
Danny Denton’s raucous debut doesn’t go in for granular thought or the subtler shades of emotion. In this ‘wayward myth’, with echoes of Anthony Burgess, we are introduced with a carnival barker’s flourish to a future Ireland, partially flooded and generally devastated by acid rain.
Anarchy prevails in this postdiluvian state, although in Dublin a brutal sort of order is kept by an apparently invincible gangster known as the Earlie King. His territory is policed by the Earlie Boys – leering thugs in a uniform of Hawaiian shirts and waistcoats. Recent events threaten their dominance. The Kid in Yellow, a former runner for the Earlie Boys, has had the temerity to impregnate the Earlie King’s daughter. The Kid’s quest to rescue his child from the Earlie King, an act of love that promises to redeem this chaos, provides the novel’s central focus.
The rain that besets Denton’s Ireland is an ‘endless patter’. ‘Endless patter’ might describe the manner of his book, one fretful of losing its readers’ attention. There are the torrential descriptions, the ‘streets of reinforced glass; of concrete pillars; of tiles; of banisters; of wooden boardings, and concrete boardings’. Then there are the switches of narrative viewpoint, from the Kid to a shambolic journalist investigating the Earlie Boys, to a police officer trying to help them both, to scenes of stage dialogue set in the Earlie Boys’ favourite dive bar. But Denton writes with such dash, and the Kid’s quest is so engrossing and sweetly told, that he needn’t have worried.