I’m still not entirely sure what I think about Julie Sarkissian’s Dear Lucy but perhaps by the time I’ve written this I’ll be a little clearer. It has more puffs from authors I admire on its jacket than I’ve seen adorning a first novel for some time including Alison Moore, Jess Richards, Ron Rash, Sarah Rayner and, yes, the ubiquitous Joyce Carol Oates. It’s told through a variety of narrative voices but mainly through Lucy, a young girl with learning difficulties who has been lodged along with a pregnant teenager on a farm owned by the god-fearing Mister and Missus.
Lucy and Samantha have become unlikely friends. Samantha tries to teach Lucy to read and encourages her to come away with her when the baby is born but Lucy is reluctant, adamant that she must stay on the farm where her mother can find her. She’s become too much for Mum mum whose time is taken up with her new boyfriend in the city. The story unfolds in a tangled web of misunderstandings which Lucy tries her best to straighten out with the help of the chick she names Jennifer who gives her the courage to do all sorts of things she would not have otherwise done. It’s a novel about motherhood and childlessness. Samantha finds that she cannot hand over her son to Mister and Missus once he is born. Missus has become so crazed with guilt at her inability to give Mister the son she thinks he deserves that she will do anything. There’s a mystery around their adopted daughter, Stella. When Missus takes Samantha’s baby away from her, Lucy determines that she must get him back and courageously sets about reuniting them.
Whether or not you enjoy Dear Lucy will depend very much on how you respond to Lucy’s voice. She describes herself as not ‘having the right words’ but at times her voice is graphically vivid: ‘Sadness was squeezing Mum mum’s insides so the crying kept coming out’ – and at others quite beautiful: waving is described as ‘This is how branches dance in the wind.’ She’s intensely loving: the descriptions of her longing for her mother are particularly poignant. The narrative rattles along at quite a pace when Lucy is on the trail of Samantha’s baby, becoming quite compulsive, and Sarkissian wisely resists making any of her characters into villains despite the terrible mistakes that are made. It’s a very brave idea for a first novel – comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time are inevitable, and I’m sure have already been made – but I think, on the whole, it comes off. So, in the end, I’m convinced.
I acquired my own little friend at some point over the weekend, either out on one of our walks in the country or at Fulham Palace gardens. I didn’t give it a name although I did call it a nasty little sucker and had it forcibly removed on Wednesday. It was a tick, and apparently there are lots more around than usual thanks to the wet winter. So, if you enjoy walking you may want to think about keeping yourself covered. I certainly intend to do so.
Last week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent
I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.
I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with the literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.