This time I’m looking at three recent debut novels.
Harriet Lane, Alys, Always (2012)
Life is not particularly going anywhere for Frances Thorpe – a sub-editor on the literary desk of a London newspaper – until she’s driving home one day after visiting her parents, and comes across a crashed car. She calls the emergency services, but the woman in the car dies at the scene; Frances bears the incident no more mind until she discovers that the dead woman, Alys, was married to a celebrated novelist, Laurence Kyte. When the opportunity arises for Frances (as the last person to be with Alys) to meet the Kyte family, she grabs it eagerly – and she’ll happily twist the truth, if it gets her into their circles.
Alys, Always is a short, snappy read which gains much of its effect from the uncertainty over just how far Frances is prepared to go; even after finishing the book, I can’t decide how much she might have planned or anticipated what happens. In addition to the main thread concerning Frances’s relationship with the Kytes, the newspaper-set scenes are amusingly satirical; and the two come together satisfyingly in the way that Frances’s exaggerations and deceptions mirror (albeit on a larger scale and with more serious consequences) her experiences at work.
Penny Hancock, Tideline (2012)
It starts with a knock on the door: forty-something Sonia welcomes in Jez, her friend Helen’s fifteen-year-old nephew; he’s come to borrow a CD, but Sonia has other ideas – she is infatuated with Jez, spikes his drink to make him pass out, then resolves to keep him hidden away for herself.
Tideline stands or falls first of all on its ability to convince that Sonia could realistically hold Jez captive for several days; and it does so – Jez is a trusting boy with a protected existence; Sonia repeatedly feeds him her mother’s sleeping pills – the situation is unlikely, but Sonia is able to get away with it for precisely that reason. Penny Hancock also constructs believable reasons for Sonia’s behaviour: we see that the protagonist views Jez as a replacement for both Seb (a boy with whom she was smitten as a teenager) and her grown-up daughter, Kit.
With the situation thus established, the tension ratchets up, as Sonia resorts to ever more desperate measures to retain control. The status quo can’t last, of course; but exactly how and when circumstances will change is uncertain, and the journey to that point (and beyond) is thrilling.
Terri Armstrong, Standing Water (2012)
When his mother dies, Dom Connor returns to Australia, where he faces an awkward reunion with his brother Neal (who stayed on the family farm, and whose physicality stands in sharp contrast to the more intellectual Dom), and Neal’s wife Hester (a city girl who seems to Dom an unlikely match for her husband, though she has her reasons for being and staying with him). Shortly after, along comes Dom’s childhood friend Andy Bohan, a junkie who has left the city determined to get clean – and so begins the transformation of their lives.
Armstrong makes good use of setting in Standing Water, evoking the harshness of the landscape, and using the decline of Dom’s home town to reflect the state of the characters’ relationships. The author also observes clearly how her characters change: all three protagonists (Dom, Hester, and Andy) must reach beyond themselves to move their lives on.
The publisher, Pewter Rose Press