Books: Independent choice: first novels

Pick of the week

My Favourite War by Christopher John Farley (Granta, pounds 8.99)

Here's an idea: no more blurbs for first novels. A first novel should be taken like a glass of wine at a blind tasting, saving the blurb for later, just to check if your guesses concerning sex, age, husband's first name, number of domestic animals, and degree of talent estimated by publisher were all correct. Except that a first novelist has Talent as sure as wine is wet. Without the word "talent" a blurb is not a blurb; it's an admission.

This is a misleading category in any case. Just as a learner driver may have been on the road for years or simply hours, the first novelist may have a greater or lesser experience of his metier. The blurb rarely says that "after 15 failed manuscripts, here is a triumphant debut from X". It might be rather endearing if it did.

Here, though, are four first novels that live up to the expectation of something new, surprising, even genuinely "promising" (though it seems a bit patronising to consider what ought to be a satisfying novel in itself as a mere appetiser for the grand plat to come). Only one, Christopher John Farley's My Favourite War (Granta, pounds 8.99) has a specific, contemporary social setting: at the outbreak of the Gulf War. The other three deal with crack-ups, yet all are about people who feel more like themselves at the end than when they first set out. All these novels had weaker endings than they had beginnings; it seems that only old writers with lots of experience are good at endings.

Farley is a 29-year old black journalist. No marks for guessing who his protagonist is (not a Zen potter from Newfoundland). He finds himself sent on assignment, covering the Gulf War, as researcher to a beautiful black columnist on The Washington Post. Farley's analysis of the war, of American society, of being black, single and professional, is quick, contemporary and very funny - the jokes are good and frequent, though it's much more than an annotated edition of a Clever Boy's bon mots. Of an editor who lies about her age: "She was something-something". On being single: "Would I have to, in the end, settle for someone who thought they might be settling for me?"

With Bless The Thief (Secker & Warburg, pounds 15.99), Alan Wall has written a very serious, very good novel. At the same time, it's one of those novels that somehow has the author's own reservations written in invisible ink in the margins. You sense a highly critical author, and many painstaking drafts.

To be fair, Wall pretty much has got it right, through having been exceptionally rigorous with himself. Bless The Thief is the story of Tom Lynch and his guardian/headmaster Patrick Grimshaw (a no-good mother in the background further swells the ratios of no-good mothers to no-good fathers in current first novels).

Grimshaw initiates Tom into the secret Delaquay society at Oxford, and Tom becomes its youngest ever secretary. Each member holds the original, never-to-be-reproduced copy of one of the works illustrated by the great, late Delaquay: Dante, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Gospel According to St John, among others.

Tom's breach of the society's code leads to his descent into a Baudelairian world dominated by squalor, drink and loathing. This is an elegant piece of writing, full of things ne'er so well expressed, and sentences that glide along like chipped-glass swans on water, catching the light.

Suspicious River (Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99) is a novel by a poet, Laura Kasishke, whose abundant images do not so much embellish the work as provide a tense rigging that enables it to surge towards its grimly inevitable conclusion. It's a bleak, sumptuous, nasty account of a girl, Leila, whose mother slept with men for love or money, sometimes both. Leila does this too, gulping down the abuse with a dry mouth.

Sometimes the images don't quite come off: "roses, puffy and soft as pneumonia", for instance. But sometimes she speaks so plainly that it hurts: "He's my height and my length and my body feels safe with his, as if I am desiring myself, as if there's only one of us to please."

Tracey Chevalier's Virgin Blue (Penguin, pounds 5.99) has been selected for the WH Smith Fresh Talent promotion, which is such an achievement for a serious female writer that you feel it deserves an award. Her novel is about a young American woman who goes to live in a French village and researches her Huguenot ancestors - and a Mediterranean man.

This is a good read: no cliches in sight, a well-made story with characters who walk and talk just the way people do, halfway between hallucination and public facade. It's almost as enjoyable as My Favourite War, thought less eye-poppingly well written than Suspicious River and Bless The Thief. In fact, there's nothing in this batch of novels not to recommend, which goes to show that sometimes, as a cigar is just a cigar, a blurb is just a blurb.

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