I seem to be burning my way through more books than I can review at the moment. We all go through phases where we can’t stop reading, and recently it seems as if I can barely pause for breath before plunging into the next book. On the one hand, its great because I’ve been making my way through some really brilliant novels but on the other hand, it means that by the time I get around to writing the review three or four books have blurred into one. So, I thought frome time to time I would do some mini reviews instead.
The three books Mislaid by Nell Zink, First Novel by Nicholas Royle and We The Animals by Justin Torres are particularly special because they are the first items I’ve checked out from Central Library with my brand new library card. I picked the books up after reading their blurbs.
First Novel by Nicholas Royle
Paul Kinder is a university lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan specialising in Creative Writing workshops. He has an obsession with writer’s first novels, particularly the ones that authors do their best to bury under more successful books. His first and only novel has suffered a similar fate, except Paul goes to extreme lengths, buying every used copy he comes across. His narrative is intertwined with one of his student’s stories, and as the novel progress reality and fiction bleed into one another.
First Novel feels like Fight Club and The Girl on a Train rolled together. It’s one of the best unreliable narrator’s I have read. Paul is a strong character. At the start of the novel he seemed like a quirky Creative Writing lecturer, dismantling his Kindle and hoarding first novels but as you realise his quirks are actually compulsions. His hunt for first novels isn’t a hobby, it’s a fixation. He collects excerpts from the Guardians writers room features and pours over every single detail. He knows which authors have the same desk chairs, which have cats or carpets. He searches for his own book amongst their shelves. He analyses their first novels and their work spaces in the hopes of finding what went wrong with his own book. It’s as if he’s holding himself together while simultaneously falling apart. He’s not a nice person but you can’t help being fascinated by him.
A short story written by one of his students, Grace, weaves through his own narrative. Grace was a character that instantly set alarm bells ringing but I couldn’t pinpoint why for some time. Her story follows Raymond Cross, a RAF pilot who witnesses a horrific accident on the beach when he is stationed abroad. His story journey from army officer to poet was compelling and as it unfolded I felt a sense that the two narratives would converge. I had no idea how until I came towards the end.
I didn’t see the plot twists coming until they hit me in the face. Few books have had that ‘ohhh’ moment for me but First Novel definitely did. Royle fills the reader with a sense of apprehension without bludgeoning them with clues.
Aviation is a repeated motif in the book. Raymond Cross is an RAF pilot. Paul follows the path of the planes at night, fetishizes the roar of the engines, the vibrations through the ground. He discovers the remains of a toy plane buried beneath his rockery and Lewis, a neighbour he reluctantly befriends has lost everything to a pilot. I thought the reappearance of planes throughout the book helped knit the separate elements of the book together.
There are so many things that all lace up together in the end, and it was so satisfying to see everything come together.
We The Animals by Justin Torres
We The Animals is Justin Torres’ debut novel. It’s the story of three young brothers and their dysfunctional family. Their father is of Puerto Rican heritage, their mother is white and as a result they feel out-of-sync in both worlds. The three boys are often left to their own devices. Without supervision they are often wild and borderline animalistic in their attempts to pass the time.
It’s a well-written portrait of a family. I remember exploring the gardens and the nearby streets with my brother as a child, imaging adventures, conjuring up danger. Torres inhabits the mind of a seven-year old boy beautifully and shows the camaraderie brothers develop as they grow. There were tender moments in the book that showcased the family’s intimate connections despite their obvious hardships. They take trips to the lake, their parents work together to bathe them; their mother occasionally indulges in their games. But there are other points where the fractures show and the cracks start to grow. Their parent’s fight violently, their father is hardly home and they begin to drift away from their mother’s love as they become ‘men’.
The prose is poetic, capturing the thrill of being a child but also the uncertainty of living within an explosive family. I had issues with how the book ended, jumping to childhood to adulthood. The differences between the younger brother and his older siblings has been accentuated by time and its clear to see how their childhood has impacted their adult selves but it felt like a whole different story in itself. I wanted to stay with the seven-year old narrator ‘til the end.
Mislaid by Nell Zink
Its 1960s Virginia, and Peggy has escaped her life at home and is a college freshman. Despite her attraction to women, she falls in love with a gay poet and college professor who lives across the campus lake. Her future plans are derailed when she falls pregnant unexpectedly, leaving her no choice but to give up her education and marry a man who is no longer interested in her. But as the years pass and she has a second child, her resentment towards her husband grows. She runs, taking her daughter but leaving her son behind.
I enjoyed the first half of the book but I lost the thread halfway through. I felt Peggy’s anger and frustration at having to give up her aspirations while her husband sacrificed nothing. I sympathised with her as she lost her freedom and became unrecognisable to herself. She was completely alone; her husband preferring the company of other writers and poets he invited to stay. Her parents offered her no emotional support. I understood her feelings towards them; there’s nothing more infuriating than indifferent parents.
The campus was such an intriguing setting, with the lake separating the poet’s house from the faculty buildings that I was disappointed when other locations were introduced. Water from the lake starts to drain away, leaving muddy, slushy shores as Peggy and … relationship corrodes. I wanted to stay there until every drop evaporated. I wanted to sink into the vibrant, stifling life these two incompatible individuals were caged in. I wanted to learn more about the continuous string of men, her husband’s lovers, how she interacted with them. I wanted her to fight back.
My interest waned towards the middle of the story, but picked up again towards the end. The book explores inequality in several forms based on gender, race, class and sexual orientation, raising a number of important questions. But I feel like I might have missed the point.