Plums and turkeys

As publishers count the cost of 1995, their bitterest regrets are for the hot new talents and discoveries that just didn't tempt the critics - or, in some cases, the buyers.
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DONKEY'S YEARS by Aidan Higgins, Secker & Warburg pounds 14.99

"The book was commissioned and I think it's a wonderful mix of fiction and non-fiction. I spent a lot of time on the book and liked it enormously, and although I didn't expect it to sell I would have liked it to have got a fair hearing. It got reviewed by The Spectator and The Times, but the others chose not to review it. It's mysterious that the Irish press hailed it as a masterpiece and yet it was ignored here. Maybe Aidan Higgins just doesn't go to the right dinner parties. He's not fashionable, but there were bad books published at the same time which got a massive amount of coverage."

KF's verdict: The beauty of this book lies in the exquisite, velvet sentences and its tender evocations of the author's childhood in County Kildare with "Mumu" and "Dado", a diminishing inheritance and a host of servants in their small mansion with 72 acres. Higgins' descriptions are breathtaking - stripy swimming costumes, circus outings and kitchen life, hiding behind mangles as the maids pluck chickens, the brutality of the nuns at school, all captured as crisp photographic images. Higgins' childhood, like that of most boys, was enriched by deep fascination with human waste products and utter paralysis at the thought of female nakedness. Tiny incidents and flashes of adulthood form lasting lyrical images; one morning Dado came into the nursery and told them that it was a lovely day and time to get up. As he pulled the cord to the nearest venetian blind, his pyjama trousers slipped below his knees: 'The rear exposure was sensational, something I had never conceived of, the hairy crevice and billygoat's matted danglers and dingleberries, though he had the trousers up about his waist, held with one hand, in a trice.'

His autobiography moves on through factory work in London during the early Fifties, marriage to a South African and their tour of Yugoslavia and southern Africa with a puppet theatre before settling in Andalucia to write. But the glory of this autobiography is not so much in Higgins' story as in his rich vocabulary and razor-sharp wit. Writing as good as this needs to be read slowly, every word savoured and then read again with an Irish lilt to extract its full worth.

NOW AND THEN by William Corlett, Abacus pounds 9.99

"I think this is a beautifully written love story - not a politically correct 'gay' novel - charting the pain of teenage love with the ache of memory and the resolution which comes with age. It just happens to be between two boys. I was pleased with our jacket and not unhappy with the sales which did 3,529 at pounds 9.99, but I am very unhappy about the lack of review coverage. We only got one national, The Times, which was very complimentary. I suspect our mistake may have been to publish it in the same month (August) as another excellent Abacus C-format first novel, David Wilson's Love and Nausea, for whom we got reviews all over the place. It is good to know that Now and Then has been chosen as one of Dillon's best fiction debuts in 1995."

KF's verdict: Christopher Metcalfe, publisher and celibate closet-queen, is having a mid-life crisis ("Now") just after the death of a father he never loved. "Then" was a brutal boarding school of cold showers and routine whipping, where Christopher played Nora in a school production of A Doll's House and fell deeply in love with Stephen, known by his peers as "the tool". Their illicit sexual encounters are tinged with the threat of divine intervention for their wrong-doing and expulsion from school, and Corlett describes their frenzied quandary beautifully. He also captures with sublime ease the tense bickering of a middle-class suburban family, where nobody actually likes each other. Alternating chapter headings leave one in no doubt as to where one actually is; however, Corlett is so preoccupied with the "now" and the "then" that there is literally nothing in between. While other boys from Blandford's boarding school get thumbnail sketches of the past 30 years, our hero appears to have lived in an emotional and sexual desert since his nervous breakdown at the end of the relationship. While I could identify entirely with the depth of Christopher's despair for the loss of that first adolescent love, it is hard to believe that anyone could carry such a torch for the next 30 years. The message is clear: homosexual repression can lead to untold emotional and psychological damage, but is it possible that Christopher was so naive that he could be shocked by the discovery that "the tool" had other "irons in the fire", when as a publisher he must have read countless bad manuscripts with just such a plot?

THESE SAME LONG BONES by Gwendolyn M Parker, Viking pounds 15

"I was very touched by the humanity of this book. There was nothing exotically black about it; it's about a middle-class community, not a dirt-poor one, but I thought it outstandingly good. I didn't expect it to sell, but I also didn't expect it to be quite as invisible as it was. It wasn't reviewed, and in a way it fell between stools because it wasn't picked up as black writing. Perhaps that's an optimistic thing to say - that it's no longer a marketing hook to say 'she's black'. It's not unusual, there are many fine novels which don't have anything inherently marketable or idiosyncratic about them. I published this book because I know it's good even though I didn't expect it to sell, but that's a luxury that you can't afford very often."

KF's verdict: Ignore the dreadfully old-fashioned cover and go straight to the heart-rending meat inside. This is a gem, set in a black middle- class community in thesegregated American South, where neighbouring whites are a threatening, ominous presence. Sirus, president of the bank and revered community leader has a lacklustre, argumentative marriage to Aileen, held together by shared love for their only child Mattie, until she dies suddenly. The intensity and devastation of grief swell through this moving novel, for Sirus almost lies down and dies with her: "it was as if the sound of that clod of earth was a voice calling to them, and they'd hear it and turn and then something inside them would climb down and lie beside their loved one inside the grave."

His wife Aileen resorts to drink and blames the white man. Just four weeks before Mattie's death, Sirus was approached by a local white councillor wanting to invest white funds in a new housing estate built by cheap black labour. When Sirus perceives the offer as exploitation and refuses, he divides his community between those who support him and those who want the work or fear for their jobs after threatening telephone calls. Whether or not Mattie was pushed is almost secondary to the omnipresent and inevitable invasion of white influence dividing black from black and exploiting their economic weakness, "leaving you with nothing between you and the cold night and a pack of hungry dogs but your own alert senses and your lips moving in fervent prayer". It is always difficult to unleash a new American writer on to the British market: hundreds are published each year and only one or two break through to a general readership. However, this novel has been severely let down by its packaging. A white jacket looks tatty before it is on the shelves, the illustration is too vague to be enticing and the title has an embarrassing ring of "dem bones dem bones" to it.

The paperback of 'These Same Long Bones' will be published by Penguin in February.

THE GOLDEN EDGE by Elena Russell, Cape pounds 9.99

"1995 was a bad year for 'small' books: never have publishers had to fight so hard to get first novels reviewed, never have so many books been unfairly neglected. The cruellest case on the Cape list was Elena Russell's The Golden Edge, an extraordinary memoir about the author's childhood in Russian Alaska in the Fifties and Sixties. It received two reviews, both excellent: one in the Literary Review, one in the London Magazine. The events Elena describes from her childhood amongst gold prospectors and nomadic, reindeer-herding Chukchi are surpassingly strange. Her style can be difficult, but delightfully so, and entirely suited to her subject - a tale told by a wide-eyed child with the wisdom of childhood. I have no idea why the book was ignored. Am I the only person in Britain who finds absolutely irresistible a book that begins 'After I was born, my mother was stitched up with the portal vein extracted from a retired reindeer' ?"

KF's verdict: No - I loved this book too, but how many people want to read about Russian Alaska, even with Russell's idiosyncratic and entertaining voice? Russell does for Alaska what Jeanette Winterson did for evangelical Lancashire, and like Winterson uses non sequiturs as a source of wit: "Our house had two front entrances, but we used the back door." She gives her young narrator a sardonic wisdom, a child's-eye view of a bunch of peculiar grown-ups, just as Winterson did in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. While the book may be derivative, it is not in the least disappointing and it is often very funny. There are some superb descriptions of winters when the temperature dropped to 50 below and the snow had to be warmed for drinking water; and of summers so hot and boring that she spent hours watching her winter clothes being aired in the kitchen garden. Only Russian ingenuity and folkloric sorcery can keep you alive in such conditions: urine can treat burns and even potato peelings can be turned into a nourishing meal. A harsh life makes people hard. "If you get meningitis, don't come home," her mother told her once. But then when Russell did fall ill with something far less serious, her mother nursed her religiously. Beneath the tough exterior there is great affection and Russell expresses that in abundance, between the lines of her abrupt and seemingly naive prose.

BABY OF THE FAMILY by Tina McElroy Ansa, Sceptre pounds 8.99

"This is a marvellous first novel by a black American with the accessibility of Terry MacMillan and the style of Toni Morrison. You don't have to be black or American to enjoy it because it's about the clash of generations and what it's like to be different. It got good reviews in the States and she's just published her second novel. I felt that she had great promise: we bought both novels and a synopsis for a third which is a sequel to this. We published it in March as a trade paperback at pounds 8.99, which meant that it reached the right audience. It sold roughly 3,500 copies, which is good, but it only got one review, in The Sunday Times paperback section. It was reviewed in the Irish News, and the trade newspaper Publishing News picked it up as a book of the month, but that was it. I discovered several months later that Patrick Gale reviewed it in a round up of novels for the FT but that was cut."

KF's verdict: I'm not surprised that this book was passed over by the literary editors. It has a dreary cover, a dull title, and a blurb that seems to be aimed at 12-year-olds: "From the moment of her birth in a rural black hospital in Georgia, Lena McPherson is recognised as special, with the power to see ghosts and predict the future." Lena is born with a caul over her head. The old midwife who delivers her boils the membrane up into tea for the baby to drink so that she will only see good spirits, but her mother pours it into a nearby plant instead and Lena grows up "different". The book lacks the sassy narrative drive of Terry MacMillan and the literary subtlety and style of Toni Morrison. The story plods through a series of episodes in Lena's life: sitting in the car with her brothers while her mother shops for rice; forming a friendship with a poorer girl who persuades her to pretend to have sexual intercourse in the way she has seen her father do it; having her mass of tangled locks cut. These episodes are charming enough in a watch-your-ol'-Mammy-sizzling- corn sort of way but they lack depth or purpose. This may be a well-intentioned novel about accepting difference, but I felt Lena to be deeply ordinary.

Tina McElroy Ansa's second novel will be published in March 1996 along with a smaller format paperback of 'Baby of the Family'.

BLACKWATER by Kerstin Ekman, trs Joan Tate, Chatto pounds 9.99

"I bought the English language rights because I had two head-turningly enthusiastic readers' reports; there was something, too, about the shape of the story that appealed to me, even conveyed at second hand. It had been a huge bestseller in Sweden and in Europe; this is no guarantee of success here, but the impact of Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow was encouraging. It became a word-of-mouth success among booksellers before publication and has been a commercial success, too, selling 16,000 copies since April with just one review in the Telegraph and a profile of the author in the Independent on Sunday. Otherwise, it was overlooked: why? Because it was a translation? Because it came straight into a large- format paperback? Either way it deserved far greater prominence and attention."

KF's verdict: A superb literary whodunnit. It's 1974; a gruesome double murder is discovered by Annie and her six-year-old daughter Mia in the heart of the Swedish mountains, as they climb up to a commune. Two "outsiders" have been violently stabbed to death as they camped by the river. The unsolved murder quickly gets forgotten by the locals, but Annie, also an outsider, begins to mistrust those around her, particularly her new lover Dan. This thriller is never frightening or gory, but deeply intriguing as circular themes and hidden connections between people and events surface with subtlety and surprise. The Starhill community cannot survive harsh winters without the outside world and Annie has no choice but to trust others; she is therefore vulnerable to deceit. The denouement is not surprising but it is entirely fitting - most murders are, after all, committed for the most mundane of reasons.

ARIADNE'S CHILDREN by Roderick Beaton, Weidenfeld & Nicholson pounds 15.99

"It's the most beautiful, confident and skilful piece of storytelling, a complex story, simply narrated, which also has serious things to say about European history. We published it in January, got lots of review copies out but the reviewers ignored it. The author is an academic so he got a review in the TLS but the book didn't get the recognition it deserves. It's so hard with a first novel when the author is unknown. You can't build a campaign around the author so you dream of great review coverage on publication. It should have been picked up by key reviewers. We didn't sell as many as we'd hoped."

KF's verdict: I really tried to like this book, but I could find very little in it to like or appreciate. It's hard to take seriously a novel which begins: "It started with a bang." And as the book progresses, the writing gets worse. At the outbreak of the First World War: "The bright world that had illuminated his 39 years, the world beyond the limits of this tiny attic, was gone beyond recall." Our hero Lionel Robertson is described from above - "Tears stood out in Lionel's eyes as his hands tightened, until it seemed the sinews must snap" - rather than being revealed through subtle use of language. This is prose unlikely to appeal to a sophisticated reading public who put such authors as Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes into the bestseller lists. The book has typesetting so small that even those with good eyesight need spectacles to read it, and an anaemically unappealing cover - while I know one should never judge a book by its cover, the fact of the matter is that people do.

'Ariadne's Children' will be published in paperback on 6 May.

AREN'T YOU HAPPY FOR ME? by Richard Bausch, Macmillan pounds 8.99

"For years I have been reading Richard Bausch's startling stories in magazines and anthologies. It seemed a mystery to me that, while being recognised as a major writer in his own country, he had never been published in the UK. I was determined to see him in print over here. As with Raymond Carver ten years earlier, we launched him with a paperback of assembled stories from different collections. Richard Ford wrote an introduction and, despite producing proofs and obtaining advance quotes from Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Raban and Victoria Glendinning, I was hugely disappointed with the reaction. The book didn't sell or get widely reviewed. There was not the celebration of a new voice in American fiction that I hoped there would be."

KF's verdict: Richard Bausch can capture an entire situation in less than a paragraph: scenery, character, tension as well as narrative. No mean feat. But his main preoccupation is with the great emotional voids that exist between couples and between family members, and the ties that isolate as well as bind. Eighteen-year-old Charles has to live through Christmas just after the sudden death of his father. An alcoholic cannot give up the liquor even though he loves his family and knows that they are moving on without him. An unemployed young father cannot bear to ingratiate himself in front of a rich woman for work. These are deeply sad stories, where families inexorably drift apart through drink, despair, adultery and misunderstanding, even though each individual clutches desperately at the hope that they can somehow stay together. The title story is a comic masterpiece which ought surely to ensure Bausch's reputation in this country. Given the fashion for men's expression of emotion - exemplified by such writers as Blake Morrison and Tobias Wolff - Bausch should have a ready-made market which Macmillan have so far not managed to find. And that's a shame - I for one want to read all of his six novels now that I have discovered his short stories.

'Aren't You Happy For Me?' will be paperbacked by Picador in June.