Perhaps because I’ve only lived in one country, I’m perennially attracted to the immigrant experience in fiction which is why Elaine Castillo’s debut caught my eye. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas in the early ‘90s, it’s about a Filipino community and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp.
Hero hasn’t spoken to her parents since 1976 when she dropped out of medical school and became involved with the New People’s Army. Never part of their guerrilla attacks, Hero patched up her comrades until she was snatched and incarcerated for two years, leaving her with badly broken hands. Her favourite uncle offers her a home in the States where she’s an illegal and unable to work. Instead, she looks after her sassy seven-year-old niece Roni of whom she becomes increasingly fond. Her aunt is not so welcoming. Paz takes as many nursing shifts as she can, stubbornly intent on Roni’s betterment while Pol works as a security guard, his impeccable surgical reputation useless without accreditation. Paz and Pol come from very different backgrounds: he’s from a wealthy family with connections to President Marcos; she’s from a dirt poor, hardscrabble home. Their mother tongues are not the same; their food preferences differ widely; despite her training Paz holds firm to the old superstitions. Paz proudly stood her ground against the womanising Pol for a long time but he was determined. Now their marriage seems unequal. This is the strained household into which Hero must fit herself, made easier when she meets Rosalyn and finds a second home.
America is Not the Heart is a big, sometimes baggy novel that draws you in after a slowish start. Castillo deftly weaves the benighted history of the Philippines into Hero’s story both through flashbacks and family history. Pol and Paz neatly personify the archipelago’s intensely stratified society, a chasm between their ethnic, social and economic backgrounds which seems impossible to bridge although it’s Paz who’s the breadwinner in their American household. Castillo captures the insularity of a community in which the many signals of where each member sits in Filipino society are present and correct, evoking it particularly vividly in Rosalyn’s fury at her own ignorance when she contemplates moving out of Milpitas. The characterisation is strong – Hero and Rosalyn are polar opposites yet their relationship feels entirely credible. And Castillo writes about sex well, unafraid to use a bit of humour – not an easy feat to pull off as winners of the Bad Sex Award will no doubt tell you. Just one criticism, I could have done with a glossary. Lots of googling interrupted the reading flow for me. That said, Castillo’s debut is entertaining, engrossing and enlightening. Can’t say better than that.
All That’s Left to Tell caught my eye on Twitter – just a few tweets, nothing shouty but it sounded intriguing. Two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. These are the bare bones of Daniel Lowe’s novel which engrosses you utterly, shifting the ground beneath your feet so deftly it’s hard to believe it’s his first.
Marc has come to Pakistan against all advice from his friends and family. He’s been spotted wandering in a slum neighbourhood, wanting to know how poor Pakistanis live as he later tells the woman he comes to know as Josephine. A taxi-driver picks him up, apparently concerned about his welfare, then delivers him into the hands of kidnappers. His guards speak little English although he manages to strike up a relationship with one of them. Every evening they blindfold him before the entrance of Josephine who engages him in conversation, coaxing details about his life from him: the departure of his wife a few months before his arrival in Pakistan; the recent murder of his daughter,Claire. Disoriented and lonely, Marc’s guard begins to drop. He lets slip more information which Josephine weaves through the stories she tells him of the life Claire might have led until it becomes more real to him than his own predicament. She warns him that time is running out for them both but Marc is desperate to know how Claire’s story ends. This puzzling interrogator with her American accent and her uncanny knowledge spins stories within stories until Marc is entirely caught in her web – as are we.
It’s hard to avoid that tired old cliché ‘unputdownable’ when writing about this novel. Lowe has chosen an extraordinarily ambitious structure which draws you in, leaving you wondering how he will bring Josephine’s storytelling to a conclusion. When it does come, he pulls the rug from under your feet yet again making you reassess all that’s come before. Josephine cleverly unfolds Claire’s story for Marc, amplifying his grief and loneliness by weaving vivid word pictures from the information she gleans from him, leaving him vulnerable and unguarded in his response to her. The apparent intertwining of her own story with Claire and Marc’s further intensifies the intimacy of the strange relationship that has grown between them. The result is utterly immersive and the epilogue is a masterstroke, throwing all the cards up in the air. This is a clever subtle piece of fiction all about storytelling at which Lowe excels, neatly ending his novel with the line ‘Tell me a story’. I’m already wondering how he’s going to follow it.
Sometimes you come across a debut so striking that it leaves you wondering how the author’s second novel can possibly match it. It’s already happened to me once this year with Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-eyed and lovely Our Magic Hour. Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is very different but equally impressive, both in its writing and its treatment of a difficult subject: Down’s novel explores the effect of a friend’s suicide on a group of young people while Ruskovich’s looks at the murder of a young child in the most shocking of circumstances. It comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Andrea Barrett, Chinelo Okparanta and Claire Fuller, all thoroughly deserved.
One hot August day, Wade and Jenny Mitchell take their two girls off to gather wood for their winter store. They’re an unremarkable family, facing life’s difficulties as best they can. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. Jenny quietly notes May’s unhappiness and June’s withdrawal, aware that her eldest daughter is already conceiving passions for boys. Wade has been taking piano lessons in a vain attempt to stave off the early onset dementia that has struck several generations of the Mitchell family, taught by the music teacher at June’s school. The afternoon they set out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. Wade will divorce Jenny, later marrying Ann, his piano teacher, who will find herself constantly speculating about what happened that afternoon and why, unable to talk to Wade about it or to fathom what he might remember of that dreadful day as his memory fades.
Ruskovich’s novel crisscrosses the years, from Jenny’s first pregnancy to 2025 when she and Ann finally meet, smoothly shifting its point of view throughout. Each character, from the main protagonists to those who only make the briefest of appearances, is skilfully rounded in their depth and complexity. The storytelling is engrossing – there’s a slow reveal which makes me a little reluctant to go into too much detail – but it’s the writing which is most striking, managing to be both spare and vibrant in what is essentially a dark novel: Ann and Wade ‘made love under the scratchy wool blanket, found surprise in each other’s ordinariness, safety in each other’s pleasure’; ‘Winter was far away, a mere superstition, already defeated in their minds by the county’s plows that had been promised would come’ sums up prairie-dwelling Wade and Jenny’s dangerous inexperience of mountain winters while ‘Outside the coyotes’ howls bore tunnels through the frozen silence’ vividly conveys their reality. Ruskovich explores the aftermath of the devastating crime with compassion and humanity, defying expectations with her characters’ kindness in the most difficult of circumstances. There’s no black and white here, no neat resolution: questions remain unanswered and it’s all the better for that. Barely two months into the year and I already have two debuts on my awards wishlist.
I have a weakness for debuts. There’s always the hope that I’m about to be introduced to an author who will make their mark or take me somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s not unusual, either, for a writer’s first novel to be their best. Perhaps it’s all that time spent perfecting the writing, none spent on the endless round of promotion that authors must indulge us readers in once they’re published. Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back repaid that hope handsomely. It’s the story of Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. It may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into.
Pregnant at sixteen and divorced by seventeen, Marie conceived her daughter while volunteering on a church project in Mexico, scuppering her chances of going to Harvard. Briefly married to Ana’s eighteen-year-old father, Marie finds herself unable to cope with motherhood, moving out of the marital home and finding work as a waitress. Working her way up, she lands a job at The Restaurant, catering to the demands of the Dallas rich. She knows exactly how to work her clients, what she has to do to reap the rewards of the staggeringly large tips that take her from living in a sleazy apartment to a smart duplex. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with Ana. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty.
Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that, of course, is what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic: ‘I don’t hear my whole life being written for me inside my body’ thinks Marie of the morning after Ana’s conception while ‘Her body was like an outfit she never took off’ neatly fits the startling figure of a regular with whom so many men seem besotted. The novel’s structure is episodic rather than linear – snippets of Marie’s story trickle into a stream of anecdotes about restaurant life – a brave choice for a first novel but it works, intensifying the chaotic inner life disguised by Marie’s carefully constructed professional persona. Inevitably Tierce’s novel brought to mind Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential with its portrayal of high adrenaline restaurant life. Hard to imagine that Tierce hasn’t spent some time working in the trade. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.