You can't do that in a Victorian novel!

2006 looks like being another strong year for British fiction. Suzi Feay previews some of the delights in store
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The magnificent Sarah Waters also returns with a new novel in February. In The Night Watch (Virago) she leaves behind the vibrant Victorian world of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith with a gripping evocation of life during and after the Second World War. Has she pulled it off? Yes, brilliantly. Waters is known for her deft manipulation of narrative and The Night Watch's trick is that it's told backwards. The beginning of the story is really the end, and instead of showing us what comes next, she draws back the veil to reveal the hidden secrets, shames and drives of her four main characters - three women and one young man - all of whom have been linked some time in the past. The wartime scenes are particularly brilliantly done - one of the women, Kay, is an ambulance driver in the Blitz. Yet the period detail never overwhelms the simple, passionate human story. It's a tour-de-force of hints, clues and dropped threads. There's only one drawback: Waters may now have to write a sequel as the beginning/end is just too painfully inconclusive.

David Mitchell is another master of the convoluted narrative, capable of cooking up mind-bogglingly complex, interweaving plots and surprising the reader at every turn. So perhaps the most surprising thing he could have done after Cloud Atlas is write something like Black Swan Green (Sceptre, May), which on the surface is a straightforward first-person autobiographical novel. The narrator, Jason Taylor, has just turned 13 and it's 1982, the year of the Falklands war (the dates dovetail with Mitchell's own). He lives in Worcestershire (as did Mitchell), and he's a secret poet (that was Mitchell's own early ambition) who's struggling to master a speech defect and avoid the attentions of the local bullies. On one level, I'm sure we can learn a good deal about the sort of lad young David once was from this classic rites-of-passage novel. It abounds with fresh and exact descriptions of nature, but it's also got the "Butterscotch Angel Delight" factor in spades - in other words, thirtysomethings everywhere will relate to this spirited evocation of a period which in some ways seems as remote and quaint now as the Blitz. But when a character strays in from Cloud Atlas, we realise that nothing in Mitchell's extraordinary brain is really that straightforward.

Publishers love saying that new novels are X "meets" Y. My favourite example from the new Spring catalogues is "The Beach meets Y Tu Mama También" - James Scudamore's debut The Amnesia Clinic (Harvill, April), if you're interested. Then there's the time-tested formula "If you liked ... you'll love ..." D J Taylor's publishers, Chatto, have gone into overdrive with Kept: A Victorian Mystery. If you enjoyed Fingersmith, An Instance of the Fingerpost or Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, rush to the bookshops in February, because you'll love... Taylor is a sly and skilled literary pasticheur and his heavyweight thriller about a nervy young widow who apparently disappears after her husband's will is put into effect features diary entries from the great George Eliot and a mock article from Dickens's periodical All the Year Round. It's not a slavish copy of a classic Victorian novel (why, in the first few pages, a man relieves himself pungently), but nor is it merely camp pastiche. Taylor has a lot of fun with his premise, and readers should too.

Of course, it's been fashionable of late to write in a borrowed historical idiom, and to shoehorn, cheekily, real authors into your own fictions. Julian Barnes made Arthur Conan Doyle into one of the characters in his novel Arthur and George, and two years ago you couldn't move for novels appropriating the majestic cadences of Henry James - or even taking up a privileged position inside his head. David Lodge's thoroughly entertaining Author, Author, about the Master's friendship with the vastly more successful thriller writer Gerald du Maurier, got squeezed out in the crush, and in The Year of Henry James (Harvill, June), he reflects on the sorry experience. The perennial question at literary festivals is "Where do you get your ideas from?". Lodge reflects on what happens when you've had a brilliant idea - only to discover that several other people have had it too.

Lodge's old friend, the still very much missed Malcolm Bradbury, is celebrated later this month with the publication of Liar's Landscape (Picador), edited by the author's son, Dominic Bradbury. ("My father often wrote and joked about the Death of the Author, but reserved judgement on how it might one day apply more directly to himself.") This is a collection of pieces left behind on the desk when Bradbury died in 2000: autobiographical fragments, journalism, works in progress and unpublished short stories. In an afterword, Lodge says: "This book belongs to a genre that used to be called, rather lugubriously, 'literary remains', though being by Malcolm Bradbury it is not at all lugubrious in effect." Bradbury is one of the reasons that British fiction continues to flourish.

Comments