Tag Archives: Debut novels

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 12

It is very hard to know what to say about Elmet, the debut novel by UK author Fiona Mozley. It is a most remarkable beginning. Set at an undisclosed time, in a Yorkshire setting (Elmet was a Celtic Kingdom, largely spread over Yorkshire) a small family, father and two children make a hardy living in a house built for them by the father..Elmet

They are not travellers, though they have had contact with them; they are not exactly local, though the mother came from this area; they are not socially adept and now do not attend school; they live as much as possible off the land, trapping, foraging and making do.

In a very different way from the family in the other debut novel, Daniel and Cathy, his sister, are living outside society. John, the father has been a prize fighter, but not in the ring. This is illegal, bare-knuckle fighting where prize money comes from betting, and John is in a class apart, the strongest unbeaten fighter in England and Ireland. But during the period which is covered by this narrative, he has in fact given up fighting, though he often goes away leaving the two children to fend for themselves.

The book opens with the consequences of what happens at the end of the novel, and this only becomes apparent slowly. Sections in italics are in the first person narrative of the boy, Daniel. Why he is on his own does not get revealed until the end.

As Daniel travels, he fills in the bigger picture with a description of the events and personalities that led up to the end event.

There is a brooding threat hanging over the story, a supressed violence, which from the start seems to suggest that all is not going to end well. The graphic descriptions of the conditions that this family are living in are powerfully executed, and you really do get a sense of the social dislocation of this family.

On the whole, John is clearly a kind and well intentioned man, he helps out with things that people need doing, picks up odd jobs and has proved capable of building a sizeable and decent house for the family from next to nothing. But they are not safe, and their home life comes under threat from one principle quarter. John has a radical solution and calls in several like-minded people to start a community action which goes well to start with.

But it is in the nature of such things, there will come a backlash and once it comes things speedily change…

The writing is descriptive, moody and tight. There is neither a word too many, nor a word too few. In spare but lucid prose we are given a very clear picture of the situation and the denouement is shockingly violent.

This is very much the sort of book one would hope to find on the shortlist


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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 8

A writer’s first book is always something to celebrate, an achievement for them and an adventure for us, especially when the book is a novel. Emily Fridlund is one of only two first book writers in this longlist, there are other first novel writers, but that is slightly different.

Wolves History of Wolves is set among the lakes of North Minnesota.  On the shores of Still Lake, one a small family live in a rustic cabin; once part of a larger commune, they are the remnants. Madeleine can remember a time when there were more of them, and the book centres around her childhood, more or less between the age of twelve to fifteen.

At some point during that time, another small family move into a modern summer cabin across the lake from where she lives. They first appear in the summer, but then one autumn they arrive again and she sees them unpacking. She can see through their windows exactly what they are doing, a father, mother and young child.

Drifting in loneliness between school and a dismal job in a local diner, Madeleine (Lindy) eventually fetches up babysitting for Patra and looking after the little boy, Paul, who is about four years old. Time passes and she earns sufficient money for the babysitting to give up the diner job. Leo, Paul’s father is away a great deal, and Lindy senses the unease that this causes Petra, but cannot quite focus on its source. Leo is a scientist, and it turns out a Christian Scientist, and when he is there seems to Lindy to be austere, but capable and generally kind, though he does grill her with penetrating questions about her understanding of life.

This novel is written in lucent, patient prose. Lindy observes and considers and we see the world almost entirely through her eyes and her experience. There is a terrible vacuity in her existence, limited as her life is. She is regarded as a freak at school and makes almost no friends, and has no contact with anyone her own age during the long holidays.

The days gaped open after that. No school, no job, daylight going on and on like it would never quit. I cleaned two perfect northern pike and did the north-forty wood the first day, then I dithered about in the boat for a few more, catching crappie near the beaver dam. I filled the net without trying, sorted all the tackle one morning, took a comb to the dogs and teased out the mats left over from their winter coats. One afternoon I walked the five miles into town and bought toothpaste and toilet paper from the drugstore.

Somehow, it is not surprising that this child ends up wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the novelty of a different family. It is not exactly that she is neglected, her father is there, caring and comfortable and her mother is there, but more spikey and dismissive, she is fed and housed and then left to her own devices…

This is a smashingly evocative novel, you feel the extreme cold, hear the damp thump of snow falling from the roof and branches, you smell the pine trees in the heat and hear the lonely call of the loons that swim and dive and you live inside the head of the narrator. It is compelling and insightful and I can hardly wait to see what Ms Fridlund will write next.

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Blogging the Booker 2015 – 9 Last but not least

The pile is empty, at least the pile that was the Man Booker Longlist 2015. The final stretch happened to be several short novels, at least novels that did not stretch beyond 300 pages, which is by several standards now considered short.

JupiterAnuradha Roy‘s novel Sleeping on Jupiter is a compact but unflinching look at a stolen childhood. We begin the journey on a train, in the sleeping carriage and probably air-conditioned, three elderly women are travelling on a last journey together – Latika, Vidya and Gouri. Gouri is a large, ungainly mass with a steadily more confused mind, she is unreliable and therefore something of a liability, but they are going to Jarmuli on a pilgrimage. Latika, because she wants to travel with her friends and Gouri because she is a believer, Vidya is more the mother-hen, placing cards with their address and contact details in Gouri’s handbag in case she gets lost. In the carriage with them is a young woman – she is chasing her lost childhood. She grew up in Jarmuli, in an ashram as an orphan, kept in unwitting captivity, abused and badly treated by all but the gardener, Jadhu and her friend Piku. Nomi is there scoping for a documentary, while at the same time looking for her past, but as the train stops in a station somewhere, she leaps off and goes to get food, not for herself but for a poor beggar woman, and the train moves off…

We follow these four disparate people for five days having different adventures and mishaps – odd meetings, some deliberate and some accidental, and missed opportunities. Ultimately, we learn more of their secrets, pains and mistakes. It ends quite suddenly, and then some time later we meet Nomi again, burying what remains of her past, shedding the pain and forgiving herself for what was a child-survivor’s instinct, to save herself and abandon her friend.

The prose is pitch-perfect, and some of the scenes are vividly told. The sense of place and of how sound brings up old feelings and memories is profoundly present. In the acknowledgements, Anuradha Roy writes

There are countless horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India. I have drawn on the legal and investigative history of many such incidents; this book is not based on any particular instance.

Although this book is not wholly about any one such case, it does remind us once again about the fragility of childhood. The abuse is nothing like as horrific as the experiences describe in A Little Life, but only quantitatively. The lasting mental and emotional effect is life-changing and appalling.

The last book in the pile, FishermenChigozie Obioma‘s The Fishermen is also about childhood and is a debut novel. Against a background of some violence, four boys and their younger siblings live a life governed by order, discipline and rules in Akure, a town in western Nigeria. But this changes when their father, who works for the Central Bank of Nigeria, is moved away to Yola in the north and can only come home every few weeks. While he is away and their mother is working in the market, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin play truant from school and go fishing in the local river, the dangerous Omi-Ala. Two seminal things happen there – they are seen by a neighbour (who they know will tell their mother) and approached by a madman, Abulu, who issues a horrible and dangerous prophecy…

The whole novel is seen from a distance of years, the teller is Benjamin.  Now older and a parent himself, he looks back at the incidents that shaped his life. At the moment which became the fulcrum of all that happened afterwards and the effect it had on his mother and father and obviously, his siblings.

For a first novel, this is something of an accomplishment because the telling is quite straightforward, there is no unnecessary detail but all the same you get a very complete picture of rural Nigeria, of profoundly pagan beliefs held together with sincere Christianity. Abulu has a horrible habit of truth-foretelling, many things that he has said do seem to come about, but he is mad, dirty and fearsome at the same time. Set in an English village this story simply could not bear the weight of the things that happen in this small town, but in an African town they take on a significant and believable ghastliness.

The father has great hopes and ambitions for his family, he prospers and has contacts abroad, there is talk of getting the older boys to Canada but before that can happen, the events that shape this compelling story begin their insidious work…

Definitely a new African voice to look out for.


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One Toews and two debuts

scan0011Miriam Toews is a writer that I have only just discovered. I wrote earlier about her new novel All My Puny Sorrows [Genteel Poverty 3/10/2014] and as a result of thoroughly enjoying that novel have back tracked – now I have read Swing Low, a life. This is a most remarkable piece of writing, although it is a memoir of a man struggling with manic depression, it is written from his perspective, but by his daughter Miriam. It is her father’s life story, as if written by him, but written after he committed suicide.

In the prologue she writes:

Had we known then what we know now, we would have understood that the end of his teaching career would, essentially, mean the end of Mel. After his suicide, we were left with many questions. How could this have happened? we asked ourselves over and over. After all, other people have difficulty retiring, but they don’t necessarily kill themselves. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could about his life, searching, I suppose, for clues that would ultimately lead me to the cause of his death. With the help of my mother and my sister and Dad’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, I’ve managed to put a few pieces of the puzzle of his life together. But in spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.

The memoir opens in Betheseda Hospital, Steinbach, Manitoba, Mel Toews is struggling to understand why he is there and what has happened. He is dimly aware that he might have killed his wife, Elvira and the fact that his two daughters Marj and Miriam assure him she is just resting does not in any way help him to believe the contrary. His brother Reg is a consultant at this same hospital, but torn between a clinical association and a sibling one, Reg opts for the latter and so Mel is left swinging in the breeze without the essential psychiatric attention that he badly needs. During this agonising wait, he leaves the hospital of his own volition and it is not until some time later that he is found again, deeply troubled and confused. Marj and Miriam beg the hospital not to let him out again, saying that he is very good at concealing his state of mind and will assure them that he is fine, when he is not.

He gets Miriam to write notes for him on yellow pads, WE LOVE YOU. MOM LOVES YOU.THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ARE A GOOD FATHER. etc. but he cannot figure it out, and he wants to tell them that he can read cursive script. He makes his own notes, but it is muddled and meaningless when he comes to look at them again.

Gradually, through the maze, he reconstructs his life story and we travel with him on his journey from diagnosis of dementia praecox (now known as Bipolar Disorder) and to his marriage to Elvira, his life in Steinbach with a growing family which was mainly happy, though there were lows, some deep troughs in his mental state that were hard to deal with, especially during the holidays from school. But at school he was ebullient, avuncular and hugely liked and respected by his colleagues and pupils.

The Toews family come from a Mennonite background, and in both the books that I have read there is some interesting background to how the Mennonites arrived in the States. Mel is a faithful member of the church and a respected member of a close-knit community, a good father and an inspired teacher. But on retirement the waters closed over his head, his depression deepened to the point of no return and he took his own life.

This is a telling and beautiful meditation on illness, faith and love. Gracefully, compassionately written by a thoughtful and grieving daughter. Reading this book opens new pathways into Miriam Toews’ other books, since clearly she has mined her own experiences to good effect.

The two debut novels fit neatly behind Swing Low. Emma Healey has written a compelling novel about an old lady who has severe dementia and Carys Bray has written her first novel about a family coming to terms with a great sadness.

In ELIZABETH IS MISSING, we meet Maud. A widow living on her own with regular carers coming to help, a daughter Helen and a granddaughter Katy who come in often and suffer the exasperation of an elderly, muddled and confused parent with a realistic degree of impatience and love. In this captivating debut Emma Healey has caught perfectly that balance between memory and forgetfulness, the anxious scrabbling as the mind slips slowly away. Maud writes herself notes and the carers leave her notes – no more toast, do not cook – to help keep her safe. But sometimes Maud remembers what they mean and sometimes they mean very little; one note however crops up again and again “Elizabeth is missing”.

The novel swings between the eighty-two year old Maud and her ten year old childhood, which is around 1946 or slightly later. In the (un-named) Midland town where they live, there are houses damaged by bombing, rationing and general shortages, Maud’s sister Sukey lives a few streets away with her husband Frank, a removals man whose war record does not bear too close an examination. Frank is not in the fighting as he has a reserved occupation, and in the neighbourhood he is well liked after a fashion, having done favours for more than a few people; including his in-laws who often get food stuffs that are hard to come by in the shops. Maud’s parents have taken in a lodger, Douglas whose house also not far away has been damaged by a bomb.

Since the author cannot possibly actually remember houses like this in Britain, she has done a superb job of recreating those rather strange streetscapes, where a whole terrace of houses stand in a row, but some have their fronts missing – like life-sized doll’s houses where the front wall swings away to provide a view of the interior. Emma Healey has also captured exactly the grey drabness, the make do and mend mentality and the constant edge of hunger. For this alone, her writing is remarkable but then we come to the passages where we experience from the inside what it is like when your mind is going, which also given her age, must come from this author’s imagination. As creative writing this is a masterwork. The plot swings between these two periods because in both places Maud has lost something precious, and this she is trying to resolve, but no one will believe her…

In the second debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, we are in a different world altogether. Carys Bray has created a Mormon family, a devout father who is a Bishop of the Church of the Latter Day Saints in an English seaside town somewhere near Blackpool, his wife Claire and four children – Zippy (Zipporah), Al (Alma), Jacob and Issy (Isabel). The book starts with Jacob’s seventh birthday, he is going to be having a birthday party though his father has to miss it because he has an important church meeting; the day starts with a breakfast of pancakes, but Dad misses that too because someone calls him out to a sick member of the church.scan0010

But when a family tragedy strikes, all of them in their own ways struggle with faith, grief and loss differently. It is a compelling and profoundly moving story, perfectly realised and imagined. The characters of the different children, their own struggles with the Mormon faith and hierarchy and the ways in which faith is sometimes revealed is quite remarkable. So we completely understand Zippy’s anxiety about sex, and Al’s struggle with temptation; the tension between family life and the burden of responsibility laid on them by the Church, especially as their father is Bishop. But we also see a community bound together in faith and how it organises help in a crisis.

All three of these authors deserve a wide readership. Miriam Toews is new to me and I have some catching up to do; I will be watching out for eagerly for new books by Emma Healey and Carys Bray.

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The Man Booker 2014 – the Americans have arrived

What a change! The Man Booker Prize now includes American writers, is this a good thing? We shall see no doubt. In this first year out of a Long-list of thirteen titles, four are American and one more is listed as Irish/American. The tell will be the Short-list announced in September. I haven’t read any of the titles on the list and will start immediately, so expect nothing but Booker blogs for the next few weeks. New novels, one and all.

The list, in case you haven’t got a newspaper is:

TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR, Joshua Ferris (American) (Viking)
THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan (Australian) (Chatto)
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, Karen Joy Fowler (American) (Serpent’s Tail)
THE BLAZING WORLD, Siri Hustvedt (American) (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (British) (Cape)
THE WAKE, Paul Kingsnorth (British) (Unbound)
THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell (British) (Sceptre)
THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Neel Mukherjee (British) (Chatto)
US, David Nicholls (British) (Hodder)
THE DOG, Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American) (Fourth Estate)
ORFEO, Richard Powers (American) (Atlantic)
HOW TO BE BOTH, Ali Smith (British) (Hamish Hamilton)
HISTORY OF THE RAIN, Niall Williams (Irish) (Bloomsbury)

You will all know some of these authors, some very well. Paul Kingsnorth is an author and poet, though The Wake is his first novel. David Nicholls is better known as a writer for TV, but this is not his first novel. So have the Americans displaced the debut novel? As you know I have read some pretty amazing debut novels this year – are they all being selected elsewhere? Is there now a prize for a debut novel? Or are there so many prizes that they have got a chance in another list?

The Man Booker was where I looked for them and met some fabulous storytellers, I shall definitely miss them.

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Debut novels by journalists

I am not entirely sure whether it is the state of print media in general or whether it is just such a relief to MAKE THINGS UP, but recently there have been a flood of first novels by men and women who are, by profession, journalists.

Today I shall concentrate on two women both of whom have recently published first novels, both novels being of the highest quality. The two books are Clay by Melissa Harrison and The Undertaking by Audrey Magee.

scan0005This beautiful, simple and heart wrenching tale takes place around a city park. Hardly a park even, more a rather special piece of forgotten Victoriana. There are benches and specimen trees, official tarmac paths and unofficial paths which take people where they really want to go, across the grass by the shortest route to the shops or the “chippie”.

Living around the park on one side, is Sophia, a grandmother to Daisy whose parents live the other side of the park in a smarter area. Also using the park is Josef, a Polish emigré who still misses his farm, but recognises that he failed to get up to speed with EU regulations and consequently lost it, and knows that this was partly his fault.

He has a dog with him most of the time although it is not his dog, it really belongs to his employer at one of his part-time jobs – heaving furniture for sale from buildings where tenants have been evicted or have died. Denny gets to move the stuff for the Council and Josef gets to cart it around.

And finally there is TC. A small boy of about nine, living with his mother in a grimy flat in a housing estate on a third side of the park. At present, his mother appears to have a boyfriend living there, Jamal, who at least cooks for them all. TC’s mother hardly bothers with him and he frequently has to raid her purse for school dinner money – or go without.

School doesn’t really appeal to TC, he is a misfit since he almost never has the right clothes, and isn’t interested in the right things. But the things he does know would probably amaze his teachers if any of them bothered to find out.

Just before he left, TC’s father gave him a book on tracking in the wild. All the different footprints, the ways to tell what an owl has been eating, the names of birds and wild animals and other exciting and mysterious knowledge. Luckily TC rescued if from the bin where his mother had chucked it, unopened, when she kicked out her abusive husband.

The paths that these people follow intersect from time to time and they become friends…

Written in a lyrical prose, with a delightfully varied and expressive vocabulary, this book is a must read for anyone who likes to sit on a park bench and watch the world going by – all the time wondering where they all belong. The seasonal changes, minutely observed, and the wild animals that share the park with their perambulating neighbours are the stuff of a little boy’s dreams.

Audrey Magee‘s book is a very different thing altogether. scan0006Set mostly in Russia and Germany in the Second World War, we follow the lives of two people who marry by proxy. Peter Faber is a private in the German army and in order to get some home leave is marrying a woman whom he has never met, but has selected from her photograph. Her name is Katharina. They meet first as husband and wife when he returns for “honeymoon leave”.

Dirty, stinking and lice ridden, Peter is drawn into her family and meets her father’s influential patron, Dr Weinhart. One of Peter’s first tasks after having met this man is to go out into Berlin, bash down a few doors and evict the Jews…then his extended leave having ended he goes back to the freezing Russian steppe.

Meanwhile, his wife and her egregious family get a capacious new apartment for their trouble.

This is a completely unsentimental, unemotional look at the situation that these two people find themselves in. The chapters swing between the conditions on the Eastern Front – Peter and his companion soldiers endlessly marching through snow, cold and danger and showing brutality everywhere and Katharina and her family, kept in decent comfort in Berlin thanks to their influential friend in the Gestapo, so that in spite of privations elsewhere they have plenty of good food, coal and elegant furs.

Anyone with even the remotest sense of history probably knows quite a lot already about the collision between the mechanised German army and the Russian hordes – all the way to Stalingrad; and equally probably knows the fate that awaited the German hausfrau once the Russian army fought its way back across first its own territory and then into German and finally Berlin. There is nothing new in this book, but by personalising it, this novel brings home with appalling clarity the grinding awfulness for each individual caught up as they are in a cataclysm over which they have no control.

Fall out of favour and you are thrown on the dung heap…

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Reading Australia

This week has been Australia week. It kicked off with a book recommended by a friend: The Burial by Courtney Collins. scan0008Although this novel starts with an infant burial, much of the story is told from the deceased infant’s point of view. Which may seem strange, but actually works, in a literary sense anyway. The main character is a woman called Jessie, she is let out of prison and given to her guardian, FitzGerald. He is a rogue, his main source of income is from rustled cattle and horses; he has another person in his thrall, an Aboriginal tracker. Neither the girl nor the tracker can get away, since they are deeply implicated in Fitz’s business and the word of an ex-prisoner with a long history of thieving and an Aborigine would not stand much of a chance against the word of a white man should the law come to get them .

In extremis Jessie takes the law into her own hand, and takes off with her horse Houdini. The tracker arrives later to find her gone and the homestead burned to the ground. His only recourse is to find a policeman and between them they set out to track Jessie. She meanwhile is having adventures of her own, away off in the mountains. The policeman also has good reasons to want to find her, since he has a history with her too.

Landscape and memory play an important part in this novel. It is not so much a case of “never stepping into the same river twice” as of the land holding the memory of all the people who have trodden in its dust. The Australian landscape, the plains and hills which form the backdrop of this extraordinary tale are filled with the songs of the past, whether from the wind in the trees or the sound it makes blowing through the caves; and the sense that those caves have of being lived in for a long, long time.

Courtney Collins is a new voice from Australia, this debut novel is both visceral and muscular, it has emotional depths that draw you right into the circuit of danger where Jessie lives, so that although some of her actions seem barbaric the reader is still hoping that she will win out in the end.

The next book is a later arrival from the pen of Gillian Mears. She has already has several novels and short stories published, but this is her first novel for sixteen years. Foal’s Bread is a horsey book, by which I mean that the horses are as much characters as the people that own them and ride them. Once again the landscape is an essential part of the book. The landscape around Wirri in New South Wales is made famous but a large group of Aboriginal painters, the mountains and valleys feature strongly in their naturalistic westernised paintings (although I cannot be certain that this is the place that is being described in this book, my memory of the paintings suggests very much that it is).

scan0009The central location is a farm called One Tree, which sports a magnificent jacaranda tree in front of the Main House. The property is owned by the Nancarrows, Roley being the remaining son, a competition winning high jump rider who marries Noah Childs. So once again, this is a book that is often about a woman with horses, one who also loses her first born child, for different reasons just as uncanny; furthermore the dead infant haunts her for the remainder of her life, and every tragedy and vicissitude that follows seem to her to be a punishment for that primal action.

Even if you are not really the slightest bit interested in competitive riding, this is a most compelling book. The descriptions of family life, the awful accidents that can happen so easily on a farm together with the drain on Australian manhood in the First and Second World War, leaving untold numbers of unmarried or widowed women working the land; the bitter struggles against floods, drought, storms and heat, with exciting and detailed description of horse jumping against enormous fences on brave horses is riveting.

Reading these two books one after the other was a miracle of luck, they had a lot in common and at the same time were wildly different. This book reminded me very much of Horses’ Heaven by Jane Smiley, but in case you get the wrong idea, I am not a horse-mad female forever longing for a ride. Just occasionally though, I pick up a horsey book and really love it.

Finally, another debut novel, another Australian woman writer: Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett. The Southern Ocean, oily, unpredictable and dangerous, but with a surfer’s wave like no other. Joe and Miles both love to surf, but Harry is afraid of the water. He spends time on the beach looking for treasures, one day he finds a midden, a pile of empty mollusc shells left by the nomadic Aboriginal people, and he realises how very ancient the place is, that people long dead had been here and that one day too, he would die.

Out past the shallows, past the sandy-bottomed bays, comes the dark water – black and cold and roaring. Rolling out the invisible paths. The ancient paths to Bruny, or down south along the silent cliffs, the paths out deep to the bird islands that stand tall between nothing but water and sky.

Wherever rock comes out of deep water, wherever reef rises up, there is abalone. Black-lipped soft bodies protected by shell.



Two brothers, Miles and Harry, live with their father, a deep sea fisherman; their mother has died in a motor accident; an older brother Joe has been living with the grandfather but he has died and their Aunt Jeannie has decided to sell his house, so Joe is thinking of moving on. Their Uncle Nick has also died, apparently at sea and so Miles is having to team up at sea with his father and Jeff on their fishing expeditions.

Harry is often alone, there is often very little to eat and an existence of unparalleled brutality is the order of the day. His father and Jeff treat him abominably, and Miles too is often on the end of a brutal knock down. His aunt, although not physically violent doesn’t seem to be very caring either. Lonely and often heartsick, Harry makes friends with an outcast George and his dog, Jake.

But the sea can give and it can take, and as much as the landscape is a character in the previous two books, the sea is a character in this one. I often found myself gasping for air as the cold waves washed over my head…

For a first novel this is an astonishingly accomplished piece of writing, I read on often with tears spurting down my cheeks. A stunning debut and another novel is on its way. Favel Parrett is definitely a writer to look out for.

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