BOOKS / First fictions

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The Independent Culture
Daughters of the House by Indrani Aikath- Gyaltsen, Phoenix House pounds 13.99. Some novels make you nostalgic for places you've never visited. Panditji's house, with the trees which surround it and the river which borders it, is more than just lovingly evoked, it is the lodestone around which the characters coalesce. Hardy's Wessex and the India depicted here could scarcely be more remote from one another, but when Madhuchchanda, the 17-year-old narrator, describes herself as feeling 'as obscure as Jude' one sees what unites them: a sense of completeness and purposefulness which 'one dear perpetual place' can bestow on the lives of those rooted in it. It is when transported to her office in the distant town that Madhuchchanda's temptations and self-lacerations begin. Panditji's house, a house of women, is threatened by the unexpected marriage of Madhuchchanda's beloved aunt. The intruding husband, Pratap, with his offensive improvement plans, finds himself bitterly opposed by his new niece and by the venomous old servant Parvati, whose creation is a comic tour de force. But when the new wife falls ill and Pratap lures Madhuchchanda to his office and then bed, she knows she must choose between what the flesh wants and what the spirit needs. A strikingly self-assured, even triumphant, debut. Verity Mason

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel, Faber pounds 14.99. In a deceptively unadorned, conversational style, the hero of this collection's title story chronicles the death of his best friend, Paul, aged 19, from a contaminated blood transfusion. We observe the teenager's slow demise, from the first warnings of tiredness, through the effects of the diagnosis on his family, to the final goodbye note kept by a nurse. The young men agree they can't just sit there and wait for it to happen so they invent a fictitious family, the Roccamatios of Helsinki, and amuse each other with tales. In a sleight of hand more reminiscent of Italo Calvino than Boccaccio's Decameron, the reader never actually 'hears' any of the pair's inventions: we merely see the starting-points, culled whimsically from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and elsewhere. The result is like two reels of a film running simultaneously on the same screen. The subsequent stories aren't bad either, apart from the last: 40 pages with 'blah-blah-blah-blah' running down the left-hand column. Nevertheless, an excellent beginning. George Barber

Winter Hunger by Ann Tracy, Virago pounds 5.99. Macabre and darkly funny tale of an anthropologist who goes to study native food-gathering patterns in the Canadian north and gets to grips instead with the Windigo, the spirit which is believed to turn people cannibal. In a compelling narrative, Tracy peels back civilisation's thin layers and presents an ancient horror in terms so accessible to a modern understanding as to be profoundly disturbing. Impressive first novel by a Canadian author. Anita Mason