Grim tales and first novels

booksThe debut novel reading group at Dulwich Books seems to have developed an inadvertent theme – girls and the terrible things that can happen to them. After last months’ tour through hell in Cambodia (Vadday Rattner’s Under the Banyan), November brought us Jess Richards’ darkly dystopian Snake Ropes, and Kerry Hudson’s snappily-titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before he Stole my Ma.

The first of these divided opinion between one book group member who absolutely loved it, and those of us who simply couldn’t get along with it. It’s quite rare I find a book that doesn’t pull me in eventually, but I found Snake Ropes  wilfully unsettling. I don’t mind ambiguity, or a bit of magic realism, but I felt constantly unmoored with Snake Ropes, unable to tell at what level I was supposed to be reading or understanding it, whether as a fantasy novel, or an allegory, or simply as a dystopia. The heavily dialected language put me off at first, but the story is relentlessly grim, unleavened by much in the way of hope or humour.

Our book group fan mounted a valiant defence, praising its carefully crafted language and the challenge of its allegorical themes. Even she, though, said she felt she’d been ‘missing something’ the first time she read it, and needed a second reading before she fully appreciated it. It is a massively ambitious novel, unusual for a debut, and the strong reactions it provoked are their own recommendation.

By contrast, we all loved Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan…, a joyfully upbeat read despite the frequently upsetting subject matter. From its startling opening line, the language of the Ryan women – ‘fishwives to the marrow’ – bounces along, bringing rough love and humour and hilarity into the lives of one little family in constant danger of falling through the welfare state’s safety net.

Every detail feels like real, lived experience, with no dressing-up or smoothing off of rough edges. There’s an economy to the story-telling that can wind you, a great mastery of the telling detail. And the spirit of the narrator, Janie, as she adapts and grows and learns how to survive in one rough estate or bed and breakfast hostel after another, gives it a spirit of optimism that can break your heart.

Kerry Hudson has said that she drew on her own experience of growing up poor in Aberdeen to write the novel, which I guess makes it another of those autobiographical debut novels. If only they were all as vivid and accomplished as this one. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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