It’s often said that there are five stages of grief, from denial through to acceptance. The family at the centre of the first of these three debut novels, Dutch poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s astoundingly accomplished The Discomfort of Evening, have stalled at stage one. The narrator, Jas, is a ten-year-old growing up on her family’s dairy farm in the rural Netherlands. One day she starts to suspect that her evangelical, authoritarian father is fattening up her pet rabbit, Dieuwertje, ‘for the big Christmas dinner in two days’ time’. When her older brother decides to go out ice skating on the frozen lake near the house and leaves her behind, Jas makes an angry plea: ‘I asked God if He please couldn’t take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. “Amen.”’ Matthies falls through the ice and drowns, and Jas’s family, like the characters in a Chekhov play, begin the slow, agonising process of suffocating in the smog of their collective emotional withdrawal.
They all deal with the tragedy differently: Jas’s father has fits of sadistic rage, her mother stops eating and her brother Obbe begins to torture animals. Jas herself starts refusing to take off her coat, experiences constant pain (‘as though my stomach is Granny’s pincushion’) and retreats into herself. She processes her emotions, particularly the sadness that ‘grows and grows’ inside her, by seeing the intangible in terms of the concrete (‘maybe a longing for death is infectious, or it jumps to the next head – mine – just like the lice in Hanna’s class’) and with a maturity that the adults do not possess. ‘The problem is it’s going to seem as though everything has gone back to normal,’ Jas thinks as she contemplates her father repainting the feed silo, ‘as though everyone is just continuing with their lives after Matthies.’
This is recognisably a poet’s novel: atmosphere (of the bleak and disturbing variety) is favoured over action and the world is interpreted through evocative, imaginative similes and metaphors. In Jas’s mind, trees outside the house ‘stand in a row with their heads bent towards my bedroom, like a group of church elders listening in on us’, and Matthies’s worm-eaten corpse is ‘full of holes like strawberry matting’. It’s all shudderingly vivid. The Discomfort of Evening is a stunning novel that does what a child’s-eye narrative should do: reveal that, in the face of adult folly, a ten-year-old can show us the world as it really is.
On Sunday 31 August 1986, Cloris Waldrip and her husband set off in a light aircraft from Missoula, Montana, bound for an airfield in the Bitterroot National Forest. Cloris wakes up halfway through the flight to find the plane trembling, the ‘mountains’ rising ‘up around her’ as the aircraft plummets to the ground, killing Mr Waldrip and the pilot. Cloris, dazed, ventures off into the wilderness and manages, through a blend of pure determination, a stranger’s help and an injection of high-dose artistic licence, to survive the badlands of the Bitterroot for two and a half unlikely months.
Part of Rye Curtis’s Kingdomtide is told from the point of view of the now nonagenarian Cloris, who, twenty years after the crash, is living in a care home and writing an account of her exploits. Grief and suffering are passed through the filter of upstanding, small-town folksiness, resulting in an expertly realised voice that is Fargo-esque in its black comedy. ‘I had never before witnessed such a helping of violence,’ Cloris remarks upon seeing the pilot, mortally wounded, feverishly ‘chewing’ on a ‘broken piece of jaw’. ‘Mr Waldrip and I did not go to the kinds of pictures that had it.’ From this point on, the drama of survival is somewhat less interesting than the drama of Cloris’s self-reflection. It is funny and moving to witness this model of Methodist respectability take stock of a lifetime of loyalties and misdemeanours.
Cloris’s story runs in tandem with a third-person narrative that centres on Debra Lewis, one of the park rangers tasked with finding the missing trio. We grow fond of Lewis, a recently divorced misanthrope, though at times she feels a little clichéd: we find her nursing a thermos of merlot in almost every scene (her fondness for this specific drink is mentioned a liver-curdling seventy-two times in the novel). The twin narratives make an odd pairing, but ultimately Kingdomtide is much greater than the sum of its slightly wonky parts.
‘Three Weeks Ago I was Only a Schoolkid But – now I’m a detective and also a tea-shop boy,’ remarks Jai, the narrator of most of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, the energetic debut novel by Indian-born writer Deepa Anappara. Things move quickly in the unnamed Indian city where the story is set, except if you’re a missing child.
Bahadur is one of these. Before he disappeared, he went to school with Jai. Frustrated by the dawdling authorities, Jai decides to put to use the hours he has spent watching Police Patrol and become ‘the Greatest Detective on Earth’, enlisting his classmates Faiz and Pari to help in the search for Bahadur. The relationship between the trio is endearing, their sleuthing fuelled by amicable competition as well as concern for their friend. ‘I hate that it’s a good question,’ Jai remarks when Pari puts a particularly pertinent query to an egg merchant in the street.
It’s a Spy Kids-style set-up to a novel about a deeply serious issue. Anappara has said that she wanted to highlight the fact that as many as 180 children in India go missing every day, and to let the children affected ‘speak for themselves’. She treats the subject with the sensitivity it deserves, without ever losing a sense of humour. Just occasionally she asks her prose to do too much and things become a little dizzying for the reader. But in a novel designed to shake people awake, perhaps that is the point.