First Novels

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

Katharine Kilalea is a South African poet who has written a startlingly good first novel. OK, Mr Field (Faber, £12.99) is the haunting story of a concert pianist whose wrist is fractured in a train crash. On a whim, he uses his compensation money to buy a house that he has only seen in pictures. If that sounds dull, this might be because it is hard to convey the shocking accuracy of Kilalea’s prose, which, ultimately, is what makes this novel so riveting. The absolute correctness of the vocabulary she uses makes one realise how pretentious and unnecessary the language in much contemporary fiction is.

This would be nothing, of course, if Kilalea didn’t have anything to say, but she has so much to convey about loneliness, madness and mortality. The literary critic Harold Bloom has said that what makes Kafka’s Metamorphosis so disorientating is its strange familiarity, and OK, Mr Field has this by the bucketload. This curious, short (it is just 200 pages long) book feels as uncanny as Kafka or Beckett.

Max Field, Kilalea’s protagonist (if you can call him such, given his passivity) is clearly disturbed: his thought processes are dissociated and his mind can’t make sense of what he sees and experiences. This detachment is often funny. Looking at his naked wife, Field reflects, ‘I liked looking at her. It wasn’t the nudity that attracted me, there was just something about her body which my eye liked, or had at least taken an interest in. And so it was, scanning her figure with a lazy and purposeless kind of attention, that my eyes came across her slightly goofy-looking large brown nipples.’ Alarmingly, he is discomfited by the nipples that belong to his wife because of their ‘indifference, which seemed to see things in the way that children seem to see things when they stare at you on buses’.

Kilalea used to work in an architecture practice and she writes beautifully about the property Field buys, a replica of Le Corbusier’s Le Villa Savoye, plonked on a stretch of coast outside Cape Town. Even those of us who think we have little interest in the impact of a constructed environment will understand Field’s reflection on a window whose glass has been shattered: ‘The empty window made me feel vulnerable in a way that was not entirely unpleasant.’

This feels like a peculiarly South African novel, with its emphasis on trauma and surreal humour. The South African quality which informs the fractured narrative will be detectable to those who know the country and its contradictions well, but for those who don’t, I suspect, OK, Mr Field will seem rather European in its odd self-possession and exactness.

Only slightly less odd is the bombastic Problems (Tramp Press, £12.99) by Jade Sharma, another first novel but this time about a young, anorexic heroin addict. The New York Times has said of its narrator that she is ‘as horrible, and as fully human, as men in literature have always been allowed to be’, which doesn’t seem quite right to me. Maya is certainly problematic, not least in her appetite for self-laceration, but I found her grubby, angry young woman narrative rather appealing and not really horrible at all. Certain lines, not least when she says of a man: ‘I wanted to be his personal come dumpster’, will make most readers wince, but her overall outlook doesn’t seem very different to me from that of many adult woman in the western world. I can’t think of any woman I know over the age of 30 who couldn’t relate to Maya’s reflection, ‘Behind every crazy woman is a man sitting very quietly, saying “What? I’m not doing anything.”’

This is also a rather tender novel in places, without being sentimental, and Sharma has managed to achieve a consistency of voice that has ultimately eluded writers covering similar terrain such as Sheila Heti or Melissa Broder, the latter the author of The Pisces, a novel in which a disaffected and self-destructive woman has a relationship with a merman. Crucially, Sharma also somehow made me care about what happened to her heroine, which is not the only way to ensure a reader keeps reading but it is certainly a very effective one.

Laurie Canciani has written about another young woman in a perilous position in her first novel, The Insomnia Museum. Anna is 17 and lives in a flat with her father, who is a hoarder. Anna cannot remember having ever left the flat. Canciani has written rather movingly about her own experience of agoraphobia before, and the claustrophobia of Anna’s situation, isolated inside the flat with her father, is powerfully evoked. There is also a great deal of humour in Anna’s distorted view of the outside world. Observing neighbours behaving prosaically, shooing away pets or getting into cars with coffee cups, she anticipates great drama: ‘She watched them and waited for some kind of murder.’ Canciani nonetheless has a slightly irritating tic of interrupting a sentence with a full stop, as here: ‘The dust came down like that painful snow from the.’ If used sparingly, this could be quite powerful but it becomes mannered and, in the end, it only acts to obfuscate the writer’s meaning. Dissociating language from meaning is a risky business and requires a clarity of purpose that I didn’t feel The Insomnia Museum possessed.

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