A biting social satire set in the 1950s and two moving tragedies involving children – in suburban England and rural Vancouver – make compelling first novels
“You won’t regret one single moment that you devote to becoming lovelier,” 19-year-old Jane James’s advice book assures her at the outset of Louise Levene’s biting debut, A Vision of Loveliness (Bloomsbury, £11.99). “Just follow this simple, practical advice and you, too, can evolve into a charming and attractive woman. A magnet to any single man and the natural focus at any social gathering.”
It’s the 1950s and Jane lives with her aunt and uncle in Norbury, working for a local dressmaker by day and practising make-up and French turns by night, convinced she will soon be rid of her drab, provincial surroundings. Then she meets the glamorous Suzy – and her life is transformed. They become flatmates in Mayfair and Suzy hooks “Janey” up with modelling work. Suzy also introduces her to men who want to spend money on her, and educates her in the art of reeling them in. In no time, she is a polished, preening 1950s Wag-equivalent (or, as some might more indelicately put it, a high-class tart).
This is biting social satire, drenched in extravagant shoes, jewellery and clothes. Levene has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and while her two young heroines are vain, materialistic and manipulative, she deftly illuminates the psyche of this era – when women who wanted to “better themselves” had to make themselves appealing to men, married or otherwise.
Small-minded, suburban England also forms the backdrop for Grant Gillespie’s The Cuckoo Boy – although this time the setting is contemporary. The first book from the rebelliously named imprint To Hell with First Novels (£8), it tells the story of a boy called James, adopted by two well-meaning parents and given everything a normal boy could want. Except that “normal” is the problem. Aided by his imaginary friend David, James wreaks havoc on all his mother’s effort to cultivate a conventional family life.
Through James and David, Gillespie explores the chasm between how children and adults perceive the world, and the devastating consequences of falling through this gap. It’s a parable with echoes of the case of James Bulger – only the families are middle-class, so what goes awry cannot be blamed on violent films or poverty. Although the adult characters are somewhat two-dimensional – James’s mother is obsessed with rearranging cupboards and serving tea and cake – this is more than compensated for by the complexity of James’s inner world. And if the last act is predictable, it’s all the more moving and disturbing for it.
Child’s play gone wrong is also central to Matthew Hooton’s elegant Deloume Road (Jonathan Cape, 16.99). The eponymous road is home to a small rural community in a remote part of Vancouver Island. Gerard Deloume, who first settled here in the late 1890s, was drawn to the “space and freedom” it offered – “a place where the Lord’s voice still echoed from His Creation”. Fittingly, the quiet human drama that unfolds is intimately connected to the lush rural scenery, where trucks rumbling past sound like “a bull pawing at dirt, snorting before the gate opens”.
Aside from Deloume, most of the narrative voices belong to the road’s residents, during a late summer in the 1990s. Initially their lives seem unconnected – a Ukrainian butcher who struggles both with English and his eyesight, an ageing Native American artist, a pregnant Korean widow, and a mentally disabled young boy. But history brings them together.
As in The Cuckoo Boy, the novel is pregnant with unease. But where The Cuckoo Boy is a savage indictment of hypocrisy and forced social convention, Deloume Road is a more delicate meditation on the cyclical nature of history, and the strength of communities. At its heart is a tragedy involving children, yet at the same time it’s life-affirming, offering the full panorama of human experience – birth, death, sorrow and redemption.