A return, a reissue, a brilliant new voice

The best, and the not-so-great, new fiction to read this month

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Never envy the writer who makes it big with their first novel: they must do their growing up in public. Success doesn’t make the second novel any easier — it may have the opposite effect — and if it is a disappointment, everyone will notice. Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers was followed by the dismal Dead Babies; Zadie Smith’s White Teeth by the flat, wandering The Autograph Man. 

Monica Ali’s debut Brick Lane — which, I note with horror, was published almost 20 years ago — was a deserved hit, a satisfying family story both traditional and new, about a young Muslim woman’s arranged marriage to an older man. Her subsequent books were admirable in their refusal to make Brick Lane’s success into a formula, though the results — a collection of stories set in Portugal, a novel about a hotel kitchen, and, farthest away of all, a speculative fiction about Princess Diana’s life after death — had a mixed reception (mixed, that is, between lukewarm and hostile).

This is a maximalist style of fiction — the literature of details

The Diana novel was more than a decade ago, so her new novel Love Marriage is much anticipated. And this time she has returned to the setting (modern multicultural London) and themes (love and marriage) that made her name. This seems to me less a retreat than an understanding of her own strengths, and the rightness of her decision is shown in that Love Marriage is almost always a charm to read: I can’t remember the last time I read a 500-page novel that was less of a chore. 

The character set is tight: Yasmin Ghorami is a young Muslim doctor, living with her parents and her brother Arif. Her parents are proud that, rare among their generation, they did not have an arranged marriage but a “love marriage”, and that Yasmin is following their lead. She’s engaged to her colleague Joe Sangster, the middle-class white son of bohemian feminist icon Harriet, whose past is “enjoying” a second life as an old naked photo of her goes viral (“That is some bush,” Arif succinctly points out).

Ali has a lot of fun over Harriet’s liberal credentials (“your parents are authentic enough to give her an orgasm”, Joe tells Yasmin), and her keenness to have an imam officiate at the wedding. The book expands into Yasmin’s work life too, with plenty of satisfying to-and-fro on hospital politics.

This is a maximalist style of fiction — the literature of details — where we get the lowdown on every character, and even on the surroundings. No item of furniture goes undescribed: the chair? Black, padded, swivel, “forbidding”. The desk? Mahogany, large, with trimmings (“leather and brass”). This sort of accumulative approach goes hand in hand with the category of sprawling realist epic that Love Marriage fits into — indeed, endless detail is why it’s so sprawling.

It helps immerse the reader, make them feel like they know the characters and can engage more fully in the story. Yet this is where Love Marriage struggles to make good on that promise. The characters are settled, we are comfortable in their presence, when suddenly, as we approach the halfway mark, Yasmin, her mother and father all behave not just uncharacteristically, but in opposition to how they have seemed so far. It feels like a cheat perpetrated on the reader. 

There are other aspects of Ali’s lack of faith in her own creations. A new character, Flame, a cardboard cutout “performance artist whose work … explored the notions of transgression, transformation and transcendence”, suddenly appears in the second half of the book to drag the subplot featuring Yasmin’s mother to a new, even more implausible place. And strangest of all, for brief scattered chapters, Ali drops Yasmin’s point of view to give short sections from the point of view of hippyish Harriet and Joe’s therapist, Sandor.

It’s telling that these anomalies in all cases drive the story in a different direction. It smacks of an author struggling to find an engine for the novel as originally planned, with the original characters. To take us away from Yasmin — the heart of the story — and away from what we know of her parents, is both literally and figuratively out of character, and as a result the developments seem schematic.

And yet it remains the case that individual scenes — from confrontation to comedy — are smoothly and effectively delivered. There is some nice tension late in the novel with Arif and his partner, and the ending treads a careful line between boldness and crowd-pleasing. It’s just that as a unified whole, the cracks are visible, and it feels, unfortunately, less like a love marriage than an arranged one.

The reissue game is big business now, and I’m all for it. What better way of cutting the chances of your new read being a dud than by choosing one that’s dodged the editorial scythe not once but twice? The new line is in “editions”, seemingly a label for niche, outsider classics. Granta Editions and Vintage Editions, already established, are now joined by Faber Editions, a mouthwatering prospect for anyone who thinks for a moment about that venerable house’s sturdy back catalogue.

After Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs Caliban and Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock from the Faber Editions stable comes Kay Dick’s They, a reissue of a 1977 dystopian fiction. It’s subtitled A Sequence of Unease, which deals straight away with the key point: it’s not a novel, despite unity of action, place and time. The blurb carefully refers to it without categorisation other than hyperbole: it is “a rediscovered dystopian masterpiece”.

The result is a curio, certainly, but too inchoate to warrant the claims made for it

Well. Despite the Faber imprimatur and unanimous praise from two generations of the literary establishment (Margaret Atwood [“insidiously horrifying!”] and Edna O’Brien [“overarching dread”] metaphorically handing batons to Eimear McBride [“hypnotic, compulsive”] and Claire-Louise Bennett [“eerie and bewitching”]), I’m afraid that They left me, if not quite cold, then lukewarm.

Like Love Marriage, it’s pleasant enough to read. The setting is presumably a future England, beautifully described in a pastoral mode (“Leafless bramble and thicket sparkled with renewal of bud”) quite at odds with the eerie dread promised. Each section, which stands alone but tells a similar story, seems to be narrated by the same person, as they encounter others suffering under the oppression of people named only “they”.

Already, with the use of “they” rather than the more obviously sinister “them”, we can see this is not going to be your typical dystopia — a sense enhanced by the subdued wit of the opening section title: “Some Danger Ahead”. And “they” are not quite what we expect, either: not a governmental force, a named sect or an ideological grouping. In fact, almost all we see of “they” is the effect of what they do: burn poets, punish artists, blind writers. “They began as a parody for the newspapers — no one dared write about them now.”

The restraint and mystery are admirable, but a little of not much goes a long way, and it’s hard to take much interest when new characters are introduced in each chapter. The result is a curio, certainly, but too inchoate to warrant the claims made for it.

Thank goodness then for Wendy Erskine, whose second collection of stories Dance Move provided me with more pure reading pleasure (pleasure! remember that?) than anything else this month. Like her 2018 debut Sweet Home, the stories largely take place in east Belfast. Disclosure: I live there too but I discount the possibility that chauvinism may have added to my delight in the book, even though reading about a street nearby in a Proper Book delivers a similar thrill to seeing your bus on the news.

The characters in Dance Move are real people dialled up to eleven. There’s Mrs Dallesandro, the delusional wife of a big-name lawyer, enabling his affairs. There’s Max, the visiting Englishman disdainful of this city with “a cultural quarter … that consisted of a single street”. But they deal in realistic situations: Kate in the title story facing up to her daughter growing away from her; Linda in the brilliantly titled “Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun” (a holiday resort) worrying about her friend drifting away when she finds a new man.

Among the qualities that distinguish Dance Move are the shards of comedy that pierce the serious surface. When Kate’s daughter’s friend is gyrating sexually in their back garden, she recalls that “that decking had been put down by Kate’s dad. That made it worse.” Erskine is also a master of what the great short story writer, Tobias Wolff, called details “that tell you something particular”: the house with an empty hanging basket outside; a bereaved mother recalling that of the food choices after her son’s funeral, “nearly everyone took the chicken”.

Some of the stories, such as “Golem” or “Cell”, have the amplitude of a novel, and we can only be grateful to Erskine for resisting any temptation to expand them beyond their necessary length. 

Erskine in interviews has discussed the influence of writers like Gordon Burn, exponents of nostalgie de la boue: attraction to the low and degraded. Here, the story “Nostalgie” addresses the point. But Erskine’s own writing is too lively a blend of light and dark to qualify for the label itself. She is a new voice entirely, and all the better for it.

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