Once upon a time, female novelists, for propriety's sake, disguised themselves as men. These days, it's male novelists who are prone to pretending to be women. It used to be that writing a first-person narrative from a female perspective was enough, but now the game has become more complicated. First Toby Litt published a novel last year called Finding Myself that had his name on the cover, but biographical details for a different author called Victoria About on the reverse, who, the conceit went, was responsible for the prose within. Now, Canongate are publishing a debut novel by a 24-year-old French female writer called Danuta de Rhodes.
Danuta, however, shares a publisher, several letters of her name and cover design with acclaimed British novelist Dan Rhodes, who always claimed he was going to retire from publishing after his third book, Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Given that this book was such a success in so many countries, could it be that he's returned in disguise?
It seems so. When I emailed Dan to ask whether this was the case, he denied all knowledge, claiming that she was "a cow" and he hated her and that if I got sent the book for review, could I please slag it off? Tempting as it is to play along with the game, I think there are two things that elevate this exercise beyond the literary in-joke it has already been dismissed as in some quarters. First, there's the novel itself, The Little White Car, which is excellent, and by far the best book Rhodes has published, and I'll get to it in more detail in a moment. Second, there's the intriguing phenomenon that while many of the older female novelists are quick to dismiss chick-lit, many male novelists seem deeply intrigued by the genre. And The Little White Car comes with an endorsement from Jenny Colgan, who, along with Lisa Jewell, is one of the most well-known and admired chick-lit authors.
For me, the fascinating thing about chick-lit is that it's a genuinely new genre, one that can now stand shoulder to shoulder with thrillers and horror and all the other categories that have been around for hundreds of years. It's possible to draw a line back to Pride and Prejudice, of course, but chick-lit has many new rules and restrictions that don't apply to Austen's novel. Critics and publishers have floated "lad lit" as the male equivalent to chick-lit, but it doesn't seem particularly well-defined as a genre, much more of a catch-all definition for any novel written by a man whether it's a thriller or a love story. Both Litt and Rhodes seem to be using the chick-lit genre as a way to explore psychology and relationships in a seemingly lighter, but extraordinarily acute manner.
The Little White Car is a Thelma and Louise-style novel where the two French protagonists don't really get anywhere, as Rhodes short-circuits the action to deal with the relationships between his characters. It's beautifully written, and very funny. Operating under disguise seems to have liberated Rhodes, and I'm eager to see his next incarnation. Only the very best novelists can reinvent themselves with each book, and few have taken the process as far as Rhodes.