Debut fiction round-up: New authors explore trappings of the city - and an Ikea wardrobe

 

In Friendship (Virago, £14.99), Emily Gould almost makes New York sound like a miserable place to live. At 30, Bev and Amy are "allies in a world full of idiots and enemies," as Gould describes with acerbic clarity the difficulty of finding your way through unfulfilling work, rising rents and underwhelming sex. She captures the way the terms of friendship shift but she's so determined to summarise generational woe that her characters come off as types.

Amy and Bev are broke but not poor, they want to be writers but they don't write, so is much at stake? When Bev considers having an abortion, religious pressures and America's healthcare system are neatly handled, but you still suspect that obscurity are the worst things that could happen to these two. They'll be ok, this novel is ok, but Gould shows that she can do better in her essay collection, And the Heart Says Whatever (Virago, £3.99), which tackles similar themes with more success and is available as an ebook.

Gould's NYC is still preferable to Mira Jacob's Seattle which, in The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing (Bloomsbury, £16.99), exists under a lullaby of "the soft, ceaseless, rhythmic kind of rain". Don't be put off by a drippy title and functional prose: this ambitious novel has plenty to offer as it switches from contemporary America to 1970s India and back again, with the protagonist, Amina, forced to confront family ghosts and personal demons. Jacob's characters make smart observations about immigrants' "lives of indentured gratitude" and the clever structure multiplies mysteries. Why has Amina's mother asked her to come home? What's at the root of her father's disaffection? How did her brother die? Tales of migration, understatement and loss add up to an intriguing drama.

Vanessa Manko's The Invention of Exile (Oneworld, £14.99) argues that home is wherever your loved ones are. Voronkov arrives in Connecticut as a young man in 1913 and falls in love with Julia but, seven years later, a paranoid American government deport him under suspicion of being an anarchist. Julia accompanies him to his homeland and the stateless couple narrowly avoid slaughter in revolutionary Russia before escaping to Turkey and, eventually, Mexico, where they have children.

If the plot sounds breathless, that's because Voronkov is tossed by history like "a pebble among waves", with places and people indifferent to his plight. Manko's prose and pacing are remarkably assured, rapid when traversing oceans and decades, unbearably tense when Voronkov attempts to re-enter America. "Paper is stronger than one realises," is a refrain based in part on the author's family history. With these indelible pages, Manko does her ancestors proud.

Who would have thought that a comedy that mixes flat-pack furniture with magic could tackle some of the biggest subjects of our time? With a big heart, a brilliant sense of humour and an excellent translator, that's what French writer Romain Puértolas achieves in The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (trans. Sam Taylor, Harvill Secker, £12.99). When Aja, the fakir, travels from India to Paris, his extraordinary journey begins, as he finds love, befriends actresses and accumulates enemies across Europe. It's deliberately far-fetched but the novel's power resides in Aja's encounters with those who have left Africa for Europe's "good countries". Moved by their suffering, Aja regrets his fraudulence and considers fundamental questions: "Why are some people born here and others there?" A bestseller in France, its blend of compassion and wit deserves to win readers here, too.

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