The Culture Show recently declared twelve novelists as the ‘Best Newcomers of 2011’. It was particularly gratifying to see a Welsh woman writer, Deborah Kay Davies, among those shortlisted. But the two novels under review here give a flavour of the diversity of the Culture Show’s list. They could hardly be more different. One is a contemporary, dark comedy by a young female writer; the other a moving historical novel, spanning the twentieth century, by a retired male politician and first-time novelist.
The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (Phoenix) turns on the life of a retired travel-guide writer, Feliks Zukhovski, who has committed his life to the Communist cause. In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union and having sold his precious Guide to Eastern Europe, Feliks’ life takes a series of emotional and traumatic turns, forcing him to address buried memories and revisit long-lost relatives and once-loved-ones. The upheavals of the year lead him to reassess his life and his ill-defined values: “Normally, I do not inquire into people’s lives. I prefer to discuss ideas”, he claims. The novel is ambitious, the prose fluent and sparse at moments of great emotional charge, the protagonist tenderly portrayed, but its ambition is its downfall. Jim Powell should have heeded the advice that his character, Feliks, takes so long to learn: that people are more important than ideas. In exploring the political map of Europe between the 1930s and the 1990s, Powell risks reducing his beautifully crafted characters to political types. There are also historical inaccuracies in the novel; it is impossible, for instance, for a Polish family in 1939 to have been able to foresee the scale of the Holocaust, when the full meaning of the event was not apparent until the late 1950s.
Although there is an implausible East German neo-Nazi character, who turns out to be Feliks’ hitherto unknown daughter, most of the cast is made up of French Resistance fighters and Polish immigrants.Why is it that historical novelists have a tendency to choose their main characters solely from the winning side?
The protagonist of Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy (Arcadia Books) sits irrevocably on the losing side of things; morbidly obese Annie is constantly making social faux-pas with regard to her neighbours, spectacularly failing the goals she has set herself in hilarious ways. Aided by self-help guides for single women, Annie moves into her new home in mysterious circumstances. It is clear that there is something not quite right with the deluded Annie from the first chapter, but the patience and the control with which Ashworth manages to increase this unease about Annie sets the novel apart as a striking exercise in psychological realism. This is the kind of book which makes a reader laugh in public places; and also wince in embarrassment, fearing to read the next line. It is a study of social anxiety, of being alone in a strange neighbourhood; single, and starting out again. Indeed, both novels focus on individuals who are starting again at different times in their lives. Yet, strangely, it is the witty voice of a young writer which denies the possibility of self-improvement, bringing Annie’s attempts to a close with a violent and unexpected climax. In contrast, the warmth and understated humour of Jim Powell’s narrative tempers tragedy, offering a sliver of hope despite all the misfortunes. Despite their differences, both these novelists deserve to belong to the Culture Show’s best twelve.