When the proof is in the padding

Brilliant! Dazzling! Extraordinary! Suzi Feay casts a jaundiced eye over the publishers' catalogues and finds some gems
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Looks like we're in for a treat. Here comes "a major work by one of the finest writers in the English language". Or there's an "extraordinary and tragic story ... from a phenomenally successful writer". If those don't grab you, how about "a brilliant new literary voice"; "an extraordinary new novel..." Yes, it's the spring publishers' catalogues, where every debut heralds a "dazzling new talent", and where every old warhorse is the finest writer of their generation.

The most lavish encomia, however, are to be found on the jackets of proof copies. Proofs for next spring announce "a stunning, blackly comic and frequently moving debut novel from a remarkable new writer", who is furthermore "a brilliant new voice [in] British fiction". (That's Faber's verdict on Danny Leigh, whose novel The Greatest Gift comes out in January.) Another "unforgettable" second novel is "incredibly rich and moving" (Booker-shortlisted Trezza Azzopardi, with Remember Me in February); while a third author, confirmed as "one of the most powerful and relevant writers at work today", falls for me squarely in the "who he?" category (Sean O'Reilly, The Swing of Things, February).

Of course, in a fiercely competitive market, publishers have to jump up and down to get their authors noticed, and their enthusiasm and commitment are inspiring. Yet there's always a sad moment in December when the past year's proofs are thrown out and I note that some poor chap who fell stillborn from the press was "set to be a major star of 2003".

More frequently the hype is justified. Two years ago I took home Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist over Christmas and came back in January enraptured by his clever, slippery tale of a cross-cultural opportunist. His follow-up, Transmission, is published in May. My bet is the fantastically smart Kunzru will pull it off again: apparently Transmission fuses Bollywood and computer viruses in a plot of vast interconnections on the scale of a global Dickens. All this in a style that, sentence by sentence, is a joy to read.

David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten and number9dream, is a similarly daunting talent, adept with the global canvas, and able to move from the technological to the spiritual with supernatural ease. Cloud Atlas, his third huge novel, focuses upon the fate of a peaceful, philosophical tribe living on an island in the Pacific, whose violent introduction to the modern world spells the end of their Utopian culture. But, as Mitchell points out, is anything really as simple as all that?

His first two novels were amazing tours de force; how can he match them? There's always the risk that the mindbending Mitchell will eventually go too far, expand too fast, become too diffuse and ask many more questions than anybody has a hope of answering, but even so, that's going to be fun to watch. I don't, however, think he'll crash and burn just yet.

The wayward talent of Jeanette Winterson has crashed and burned repeatedly, but every time she seems to emerge smiling and unscathed from the wreckage, and good luck to her. Lighthousekeeping (Fourth Estate, May) sounds like a return to form, as its heroine, Silver, navigates a veritable sea of stories, from Ulysses to R L Stevenson, in a search for a personal myth.

Maggie O'Farrell launches out again in March with her third novel, The Distance Between Us (Review). Moving from the streets of Hong Kong via London to the wet vistas of the Scottish Highlands, it contains many of the elements that made her previous novels so compelling, as her star-crossed protagonists struggle against familial pressures and the burden of the secrets of their pasts.

Her first novel, After You'd Gone, was so successful that novels started almost immediately to be marketed as "in the tradition of Maggie O'Farrell". This is now a tradition in its own right, more usually seen in non-fiction: this spring sees books in the tradition of Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men; in the tradition of Band of Brothers; and in the tradition of Batavia's Graveyard. No wonder skimming the catalogues swiftly turns into an exercise in déjà vu.

True originality is as rare as jacket copy without hyperbole, but Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs' crazed childhood memoir, certainly qualified earlier this year. Pitiless detachment made it both hysterically funny and heartrending. It's good to learn that after leaving the dysfunctional Finch household, young Augusten had yet more nightmarish trials to undergo. Dry is the account of his time in rehab (Atlantic, June), and it promises to be just as unhealthily dark.

But childhood doesn't have to be dysfunctional to be underscored with dread. William Sutcliffe makes a welcome return to fiction in March with Bad Influence (Hamish Hamilton), an equally sharp and pitiless, possibly Bulger-inspired novel about the malign effects of adolescent male friendship. Sutcliffe's trademark humour twists and contorts into something much blacker in this quietly horrifying tale.

It's a weird irony that Augusten Burroughs grew up in the shadow of Smith College, Sylvia Plath's old alma mater, when she could have learned so much from his breezy approach to personal tragedy. Does the world really need another dissection of the Plath-Hughes marriage? Probably not, but at least if it's by Diane Middlebrook, who wrote a superb biography of Anne Sexton, it's likely to have real substance and insight. Her Husband is published in June (Little, Brown).

The prototype stroppy woman writer was Mary Wollstonecraft, and I'm looking forward to Lyndall Gordon's Vindication of a Life (Allen Lane, May). It takes a brave biographer to follow Janet Todd's magisterial life of 2000, but the latter's fine scholarship was let down by a rather grudging tone. I hope Gordon can better capture the warmth and passion of this fine, though flawed woman.

It's so easy to fall into the trap of castigating women writers for a lack of charm or mild disagreeableness that would go unremarked in a man. When I met Gwendoline Riley, I thought: "Wow! what a sourpuss!" The permanently pouting Ms Riley might not be the warmest individual I've ever met, but she is a significant talent. I thought her debut, Cold Water, was terrific: the sort of novel which transports you bodily to another place, in this case a dreary, dead-end Manchester filled with waifs and losers. Her lead character, Carmel, was almost infuriatingly passive, yet she had a wan charm which shone through the gloom. The book, as frail as its heroine, was a mini-miracle. Riley's follow-up, Sick Notes (Cape, March), looks promisingly downbeat. She's so good at lost souls that I hope success doesn't cut her free from her inspiration. But that remarkable truculence should stand her in good stead.

Ruth Padel will be remembered by IoS readers for her learned and passionate Sunday Poem columns, later collected in book form. Since then, Padel has been travelling the world and visiting zoos: the result is the wildlife-inspired The Soho Leopard (Chatto, June), a rich and sensual collection of poems in the tradition of... well, like all these writers, Padel resembles nobody so much as herself. With authors like this around, book-lovers can look forward to a vintage year.