Debut fiction books round-up: From Dear Committee Members to Bluff City Pawn

Splendid isolation: Mary Costello, whose ‘Academy Street’ communicates a sense of ‘essential loneliness’

Mary Costello author
Mary Costello author

Dear Committee Members (The Friday Project, £12.99) is the witty UK debut from the American author Julie Schumacher.

Composed of letters of recommendation penned by Jason Fitger, an English professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest being beaten down on all sides – departmental cutbacks, problem-causing ex-wives and girlfriends, a student protégé in whom no one else seems to recognise any talent, not to mention his own failing literary career – Schumacher manipulates the epistolary genre to great effect as Fitger’s caustic, passive-aggressive missives chronicle an academic year.

Read deeper than the humour and there are serious warnings about the future of departments of what are already becoming “Lost Arts”, the dangers of the digital age (the perils of the “reply all” button, and the frustration involved in filling out “inane” computerised forms), and the lost art of letter writing.

Moving southwards, the city of Memphis in Tennessee is the setting of Stephen Schottenfeld’s Bluff City Pawn (Bloomsbury, £16.99). A debut notable for the absence of any gimmicks, Schottenfeld’s tale of a gun deal concerning three brothers that brings long-established sibling rivalry bubbling to the surface demonstrates real talent reminiscent of traditional hard-boiled crime fiction. Keen to advance his business in a less run-down part of town, pawn-shop owner Huddy Marr enlists the help of his two brothers – Joe, a hard-working property developer, brings the money; the less trustworthy Harlan provides the muscle – to buy a recently deceased client’s impressive gun collection.

Bluff City Pawn is a thriller in all but name, with every aspect of the deal itself – from the people skills Harlan has to employ negotiating with the gun owner’s old Southern money-drenched widow, to the intricacies of the federal paperwork involved – wracking up the tension an impressive notch further.

Family dynamics are also at the heart of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (Blackfriars, £8.99), specifically those of the Ohio-dwelling Lee family in the 1970s. The favourite of her parents’ three children, and the vessel for their unachieved dreams – her mother’s ambition that her daughter become a doctor rather than languish as a homemaker like she has; and her father’s desire for her to “fit in” in the way that he, as the son of first-generation Chinese immigrants, has never done – 16-year-old Lydia is found dead at the beginning of the book.

Yet rather than the obvious angle of a police procedural in the style of Twin Peaks or The Killing, Ng takes a sedate route into the mystery. Instead of laying bare an entire small town, she keeps her focus firmly on the members of the Lee family, painstakingly documenting the unanticipated spoils of lives dominated by disappointment. The end result is a raw and moving portrait of a family in crisis.

When it comes to really getting under the skin of one’s characters, the Irish writer Mary Costello proves herself an absolute master in Academy Street (Canongate, £12.99), a novel that charts six decades of Tess Lohan’s life, from her childhood in 1940s rural Ireland, through her emigration to America in the 1960s, to her life in bustling Manhattan.

Costello magnificently renders the “essential loneliness” that nestles deep inside Tess – “It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love” – and how this affects her relationships with those around her. Given the subject matter and the exquisite, pared-down simplicity of Costello’s prose, comparisons with Colm Tóibín are inevitable, but the early chapters documenting Tess’s Irish childhood also, delicately, echo something of Edna O’Brien’s work.

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