Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of First Novels

Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of First Novels

Article excerpt

Oliver Tate, the hero of Submarine (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), is a monologophobic parthenologist. Roughly translated, this means he is interested in finding new words to describe what it's like being a virginal 14-year-old in Swansea. So is Joe Dunthorne, whose first novel this is, and both he and Oliver are extremely good at what they set out to do.

Dunthorne's success is rooted in his star's: Oliver is surely the most charming adolescent borderline sociopath since Martin Amis lit up The Rachel Papers with Charles Highway. This is the sort of teenager whose determination to help others overcome their distressing limitations is matched only by his blindness to how unwelcome such ministrations are. Faced with his parents' faltering marriage, he follows his mother on a yoga retreat and hides in a bush to make sure she's not cheating on his dad. He lists his girlfriend Jordana's pros and cons: 'Not a Fabian, ' he ponders.

'A shame.' And he makes the school's official fat girl a leaflet offering anti-bullying pointers like 'be cruel, ' and 'only be yourself inside your head': 'Like food, ' he encourages, 'I know you've got it in you.' If this was all there was to Oliver, he would just be exhausting. But it isn't.

Dunthorne catches that curious teenage mixture of blithe self-assurance and naked insecurity exactly, and there's something heartbreakingly sweet about Oliver's attempts to deal with the world's alarming irregularities armed with nothing but an expanding vocabulary. Who wouldn't fall for a boy whose first reaction to the news that someone has a tumour called a medulloblastoma is to reflect on the word's ineligibility for Countdown?

The Reverend John Gore, who is at the centre of Richard T. Kelly's Crusaders (Faber, £14.99), is also marked out by his way with words. A native of Newcastle, he returns there in 1996 after university and theological college to plant a church in a particularly deprived area, and finds that his clergyman's cadences-- 'Why, yes, of course'; 'Well, as a matter of fact'; 'Can I expect to see you?' -- are quickly swamped by a barrage of mouthy parishioners. As Gore struggles to establish himself, three of them -- a shady bouncer, a smooth Blairite MP, and a stroppy single mother -- join him in the foreground. By alternating past and present, Kelly builds a rigorous account of their interwoven lives, and by extension of a deeply political city on the cusp of a new era.

At 500 pages, Crusaders has heft, at least.

Its scale isn't redundant: Kelly has grand political ambitions, and it takes space to make an argument out of characters.

Unfortunately, the writing is inadequate to the task. …

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