The ones that got away

All the ingredients of a bestseller are there - the author is young and talented, the manuscript has the whole office transfixed, the marketing department is spending half its budget on a publicity campaign. But literary editors and the book-buying public just don't want to know. Kate Figes asks eight publishers about their most neglected books of the year, and considers why they slipped through the net
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Robin Robertson, publishing director: "Todd McEwen has made three mistakes - he's Californian, he leaves seven or eight years between each novel and each of his three novels are linguistically challenging, although uproariously funny. We delayed publication until February, the supposedly ideal month for 'difficult' fiction because of lack of competition for review space, and the result was only two reviews in national newspapers. Too many books are being published and there is lack of intellectual rigour from publishers' editors, but there is also a failure of imagination among literary editors. They haven't accommodated paperback originals now that most new fiction is published that way, and they are all sheep-like, reviewing the same high-price, hardback non-fiction and traditional big-name novelists."

KF's verdict: It takes a while to get used to the style of this quirky and wonderful novel, so browsers are unlikely to be seduced by the first page. But as soon as I slowed down my reading and savoured every word, I became captivated by this boy's eye view of boredom and the insanity of the adult world.

Joe loathes school, gets hauled up in front of the headmaster because of misunderstandings, and cannot see the pattern or the point of arithmetic. He'd rather flee from his father's rantings and incomprehensible sums and escape with his mates into the unlimited imagination of children. The writing is rich, original and amusing with a Garrison Keilloresque observation of ordinariness.

McEwen delights in the shortest descriptive sentence. All we need to know about a friend's mother is that "Her hair boinged" and "Jeans make you stand around". Joe gets "sofa feelings" but "when you crawled behind the sofa, that was what gave you the best ball-tickle and raise hackle" and as for craft kits - "make your own Indian Moccasin, well, whoop- de-do". But McEwen is at his funniest and most endearing when he describes the agonies of arithmetic. Anyone who hated maths and failed miserably will identify with Joe's plight. He is forced to work overtime on his sums but the dull textbook "was enormously, endlessly thick, the pages so thin you could tear out whole fistfuls at a time and it would make no difference".

A Sort of Homecoming

Robert Cremins Sceptre pounds 10 Roland Phillips, publishing director (Hodder and Stoughton): "We took this on believing it to be a young, fresh Irish voice, and, unlike so many others, not a lyrical one. In the central character, Tom Iremonger, Robert Cremins has created someone every bit as good as the early Martin Amis characters.

We expected this to be widely reviewed as a great new voice but it simply didn't happen. It got two raves in nationals and a few local mentions but that was it. In retropect, the cover was a mistake, I think, and we're changing that for the paperback. It is really heartbreaking when you take on something as original as that and it doesn't get reviewed, when there is a real willingness to review and sell first novels these days. It's second novels that are really difficult, but then this has been a bumper year for fiction ..."

KF's verdict: It has, and it's noticeable that nearly every publisher has submitted a work of fiction this year as their most overlooked book.

It's Christmas and all the planes to Dublin are packed full of Ireland's missing youth as they trudge home for the festive season, including 'Iremonger' and his beloved leather jacket 'nico' (hence the book jacket which is not very eye-catching but a good pun). He's been drifting round Europe and America's most glamorous high spots, frittering away his inheritance from his canny, puritanical grandfather on drink, drugs and expensive labelled goods. This is at times deeply funny, with a brilliant Chistmas day present-giving scene. Tom's posted gifts from Bloomingdales never arrived so he gives away his own things. But it's the deep pathos that runs through this novel which makes it so special. Tom is preoccupied with his own image and self-indulgence, but underneath all that ephemera he is a lost and needy soul. His former girlfriend has moved on to someone more successful, he had a brilliant grasp for history at college which he has ignored and his inheritance is all gone. But just like everyone else he's back on that plane out of Dublin after New Year looking for opportunity. Cremins is only 30 years old and talent this fresh and accomplished deserves a wider reading. The paperback is due out in March.

The Kiss

Kathryn Harrison Fourth Estate pounds 6.99 Christopher Potter, publishing director: "The Kiss was first published in April 1997 and sold really well in hardcover, in part as a response to the huge quantity of publicity that the book inspired - most of it positive. But somehow the sales never happened in paperback a year later. Was it the paperback cover? Was the public fed up with all of the publicity? Did the publicity in fact give the wrong idea of the book? Whatever, the paperback sales hardly matched the hardback sales and I find that puzzling. It's not as if the public don't respond to difficult subjects, as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly testifies. We certainly did as much point-of-sale with posters and advertising."

KF's verdict: The sales of The Kiss in the end weren't all that bad, with nearly 13,000 in hardback and 18,000 in paperback, but the book didn't sit for weeks in the bestseller lists and fathom the depths of the wider "word of mouth" market as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did.

Kathryn's father left when she was a baby. When she met him again at the age of 20, they began an incestuous love affair which lasted for four years. Harrison has been astonishingly brave in describing the agonies of those years without a hint of pornographic detail or self-pity (she was a consenting adult after all). This is an unforgettable tale, a work of searing honesty, of immaculate literature, not a tacky shlockbuster about an incestuous affair, but for some critics it was too much to bear and one or two even accused her of making it up for financial gain.

Good critics lead the general reader on to higher things, but they are also human and their nervousness about the harrowing subject matter must in some way reflect the attitudes of the general public. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was an astonishing achievement with universal appeal: we all feel vulnerable to illness and fear it. It left one feeling glad to be alive. Incest, on the other hand, has a dirty feel to it and reading about it may have aroused worries of distasteful voyeurism.

The Kiss is, I suspect, a book ahead of its time - one that will last far longer than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as our understanding about the nature of incest develops. On the other hand, it could just be that this fashionable obsession with confessional memoir is at last coming to an end.


Joanna Traynor Bloomsbury pounds 10.99 Liz Calder, publishing director: "We published Joanna's second novel in May as a paperback original. Her first novel, Sister Josephine, won the Saga Prize. This has the same qualities as that but is stronger. It is very, very forthright and tough-minded, her dialogue is wonderful and her central character terrifically bolshie and full of attitude. She has a disfigured face, which is not an easy subject to tackle. Joanna has had reviews but they've been small in paperback round-ups and she's so much better than that. Why isn't she being reviewed like Irvine Welsh? She should be getting mainstream solus reviewing."

KF's verdict: For years the more liberal elements of the literary world have lamented the marked absence of black British women writers. So it does seem extraordinary that the most exciting young black woman writer to emerge in years should be so consistently overlooked (she was given a solus review in the IoS). Yes, there are problems. It is far too long and there were moments when I wanted to shake the central character out of her self-pity, but those are minor criticisms from a white woman with an unscarred face.

Half of Vivien's face was badly burnt by boiling jam when she was eight. Her sister Divine was responsible, and while she graduated from Oxford and went to live in Paris with her beautiful face, Viv, nicknamed Splash, became ambidexterous so that she could cup her right cheek with her right hand to hide her disfigurement, and drifted into drug dealing. The novel pivots around her arrest and potential imprisonment for possession and intent to supply cannabis and heroin, and Traynor is at her most fluent and funny when she describes drug-dealing and the pompous indifference of the legal establishment. She is as good as Welsh and deserves better, but I suspect being black and female doesn't help. Perhaps the literary establishment is not so liberal after all ...

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Richard Flanagan Picador pounds 14.99 Peter Straus, publisher: "When the script came in many people read it with great excitement. We felt that here was a major new international voice. Picador Australia published it in the autumn of 1997 and it was quickly acclaimed - the Sun Herald said it was "destined to be a classic" and it was a national bestseller. We pushed the book hard with the trade and hoped for the same kind of attention and support we had with Tim Winton's The Riders. It received small reviews in the Times, Time Out and the TLS which was very disappointing. Australian fiction is not the easiest to sell, but this story covers post-war Europe and is written in such a way as to be internationally accessible, like the prose of Peter Carey, David Malouf and Tim Winton."

KF's verdict: It is pleasing to see that high production values have not completely disappeared from British publishing. This novel was definitely the most pleasurable of the eight as an object to hold and read, a hardback with a lovely cover and large, legible type printed on thick paper - a rare treat these days with the ubiquitous paperback original. But I found this novel heartbreaking and there were times when I craved a little light relief from the unrelenting bleakness.

Sonia and her father live in grimmest Tasmania; her mother walked out of their woodland hut into a blizzard one night when Sonia was three years old and never came back. Both her parents suffered terribly from Nazi atrocities in their native Slovenia and came to Australia in search of a new life. But they became the "wogs" never fully accepted by "white" Australia and had to take on the jobs that nobody else wanted. The novel rotates between Sonia's traumatic childhood - being shunted from one foster home to another and beaten by her drunken father - and her return to Tasmania, 22 years later at the age of 38, pregnant, and seeking answers to her mother's disappearance. Flanagan has a resonant poetic voice and there are breathtaking moments of undiluted passion. There are no villains or victims here, but complex characters damaged by their pasts and I couldn't help but be deeply enthralled and moved by their stories. But the trouble is that when the final redemption in their relationship comes (and you know that it is coming), I had lived through so much sadness and unmitigated depression that the resolution felt too neat and complete.

The Mermaids Singing

Lisa Carey Viking pounds 12.99 Juliet Annan, publishing director: "I felt this was a very self-assured and sensitive novel from someone who is only 24. To be able to get into the minds of a 60- and 35-year-old woman like that shows a great deal of sophistication. I'd hoped it would find a market among late 20- and early 30-year-olds, but I think it fell between two stools - she's not a hip young novelist writing about single life and she's not a Maeve Binchy either. It got one review in the Observer and the TLS but not as much as I'd have liked. I think editors put pressure on literary editors to cover non-fiction. It's become an obsession of mine: I count the reviews and the lead is almost never fiction. The focus these days seems to be on providing readers with an interesting story rather than critically appraising new fiction."

KF's verdict: Reviews these days do seem to be weighted heavily on the side of "fact". Perhaps that too has contributed to the overwhelming presence of good novels in this year's Ones That Got Away. I was also surprised to discover that Lisa Carey is only 24 (her age is not given on the dust jacket) for her understanding of the tensions and ties that bind mothers to daughters and drive them apart is remarkably mature.

Grace leaves the tiny, close-knit community on the island of Inis Muruch off the West Coast of Ireland, with her small daughter Grainne, for the freedom of America. When her mother dies of cancer, Grainne is a sulky, anorexic adolescent, forced to return to Ireland with her grandmother, "a woman I had thought was dead". There she discovers a heritage she knew nothing about - her early childhood on the island and her father. There is an eerie, cyclical pattern to the lives of these three generations of women. Each dreams of escape, yet each is seduced by the tempestuous Celtic traditions that loom large in this powerful, promising debut. Carey really can write and concentrates on issues of lasting interest to women of all ages, far preferable to the ditsy rubbish churned out in the ever- expanding genre of "single woman's fiction". Shame about the hardback cover though - very old fashioned and dreary, but Juliet plans to vamp that up with something different for the paperback in June.

The Flamingo Rising

Larry Baker Little, Brown pounds 12.99 Philippa Harrison, publisher: "There was an enormous buzz in-house about this book right from the start, and one always hopes that such genuine and widespread early enthusiasm is a good indication of how the book will sell, but sales of the hardback were disappointing. We did a large mail- out of early reading copies, advertised on the front of the Bookseller and produced some very eye- catching posters and display bins. It's sad, though, how often booksellers completely ignore proofs of first-time non-category writers and the Observer was the only national that reviewed the book. Apart from that, I wonder whether we should have published straight into paperback. Although our hardback was only pounds 12.99, people mightn't have noticed and we published in January when there were plenty of books at sale price to choose from as well."

KF's verdict: It isn't often these days that you can genuinely say that a novel is a joy to read. But there is such a generous and uplifting spirit here that even the dramatic disasters, such as the death of the main character's mother in a burning aeroplane, seem more palatable. Larry Baker paints a comic strip picture of Florida in the 1960s, halcyon days where marriages lasted and even neighbourly feuds had a warm glow to them.

Hubert and Edna Lee built the world's largest drive-in cinema on the Florida coast, bang next door to Turner West's undertaking business. Their wrangling dominates until Abraham, their adopted son from Korea falls in love with the West's daughter and Lee's Fourth of July fireworks display from the top of the Flamingo screen turns tragically wrong. Hubert and Edna are not ordinary parents. They live in a cinema and have no television, they teach their children at home until the state discovers their absence at the age of 12. But the love they feel for their adopted children oozes forth. They couldn't have loved them more if they had produced them from their own bodies. This is great fun to read and often very funny. It is heartening to see that Little, Brown have backed their belief in the book with more marketing than most well-known names get, and I am sure that with the right cover it will be hugely popular in paperback. My one worry is that at times it is just a little too sweet. The harsh realities of family life are so coated with sugar that I ended up craving a little salt on the obvious wounds to make them feel more balanced and real.

Nosferatu in Love

Jim Shepard Faber pounds 9.99 Julian Loose, publishing director: "Jim Shepard is a real writer's writer, his technique is superb, but he hasn't received the commercial success he's due, certainly in the UK. We couldn't afford to bring the author over from the US for publication but even so, coverage was extensive and favourable, but getting the book into the shops was a struggle. In the end we got out about 1,500, which is disappointing for a paperback original with all this attention. You could argue that in the final analysis it's a book about a little-known German film-maker of the silent era and booksellers were sceptical, but it should have a longer shelf-life than many novels as we can continue to cross-promote it with our film title list. I think our format was right but the jacket, though striking and nicely silverised, was in retrospect far too austere."

KF's verdict: This novel is never going to be a mass- market hit, but for lovers of the art house movie and the origins of cinema it's an absolute must. The central core of this fictionalised biography is F W Murnau's production diary from the set of his legendary Nosferatu in 1922, and there are some astonishing descriptions of early filmaking and its inherent problems. But more importantly, perhaps, this is a tale of a tormented soul, who lost the love of his life, the poet Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele in the 1917 Russian offensive. Murnau believed that he had driven his lover to suicide, and it is that guilt which haunted his life and fuelled his work. In one of the most beautifully written passages, Murnau signs up in order to appease his guilt and takes to the skies in an aeroplane. There he sees life from an entirely new perspective: "I came to understand aviation as a new way of seeing ... in this new, astounding topological field, air pilots already had their own special effects, with their own names: loops, figure-eights, falling leaf rolls." Shepard's lyrical novel reminds us of the way that groundbreaking, great art can be inspired by seemingly unconnected things, as well as the deepest torments of the soul.