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Posts Tagged ‘debut novel’

Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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I read in last week’s Economist about “a retired civil engineer” in India, Chewang Norphel, who has “built a dozen artificial glaciers.” Natural glaciers there are disappearing or receding, so they no longer provide annual melt water farmers relied on in spring. The report notes that glaciologists (a cool job title, I think) might quibble that what Mr. Norphel is making is not technically a glacier. But it’s still very good work, well received by those it impacts.

Which brings me to the book I read this week, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Until two weeks ago it was touted as a debut detective novel by Robert Galbraith. A very good debut, although not a very big seller. Now of course the world knows that J.K. Rowling wrote it, so it’s not technically a debut. But it’s still very good work, and even before its famous author was outed, well received.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve been on a bit of a spy/detective kick lately. Also Teen the Younger got me into watching Elementary, with Lucy Liu as our favorite Watson ever. The Cuckoo’s Calling introduces the detecting duo of Cormoran Strike, a former Army Special Investigator, and Robin Ellacott, who temps in his office, fulfilling her secret girlhood dream of solving mysteries. I loved them both and could see them as I read. I think they’re a good team — not as funny as Sherlock and Watson, but complementary.

The story is also very good, with lots of social commentary woven wittily and seamlessly into the story, à la Jane Austen (or perhaps Jonathan Franzen). And a number of suspects, so that I wasn’t exactly sure who’d committed the crime right up until Strike revealed it (the only thing I didn’t love – the scene where he explains the crime is a bit unbelievable). Vivid descriptions really brought the streets, flats, offices, pubs and shops of London to life — again I could picture every scene. I especially got a kick out of the designer Guy Somé  and his studio.

The supporting characters were as interesting and carefully wrought as Strike and Robin, and Galbraith/Rowling got each person’s tics and quirks down, so her hero could note them as he questioned and observed. That kind of detail made the detective work a pleasure to follow. References to everything from pop culture to Latin literature gave the story texture as well. All the way around, this was a very entertaining, well written book.

Which I would have found fun and well done regardless of who wrote it. But I may not have heard about it had the news not broken about it’s real authorship. Debut or not, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Just as the farmers in Kashmir are enjoying the annual cycle of melt water irrigating their fields, regardless of whether the glaciers are brand new man-made creations or ancient ice.

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