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The best of 'literary fiction'
Last year, an episode of BBC's Culture Show on British 'literary fiction' featured 12 debut novelists. Literary fiction, rather a pompous tag, denotes literature or writers that don't fit into any one specific genre, ie crime, thriller. The writing rather than the subject matter makes the book.
I chose three books from the Culture Show's list which promised to cover 'political' issues rather than just tell a story.
The Observer's review called Adam Haslett's book Union Atlantic a "gripping tale of what happens when greedy corporate America collides with a stubborn old woman".
Set in 2001/2, it has echoes of the Barings Bank scandal. But it was written recently so 2007's worldwide banking collapse clearly has an effect on Haslett's writing.
Sadly, I found it unsatisfying. The old woman, Charlotte Graves, is an unlikely figure to represent anti-capitalism, and the garden party scene, presumably meant to represent the capitalist bubble bursting, is ridiculous.
In 1987, current Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist was winning the Coventry South East seat in the general election. Across the city, Jim Powell was the defeated Conservative candidate. But this Tory's first novel, The Breaking of Eggs, dealing with Eastern Europe in the 20th century reads well!
Powell makes an all too easy comparison of communism with fascism as twin evils and wrongly claims that socialism/communism is an ideal for youth which we grow out of as we get older. But he treats his lead character, Feliks Zhukovski, an unreconstructed Stalinist, with sympathy and the story, although far-fetched at times, makes the book a page-turner and a worthwhile read.
My third choice Stephan Kelman's Pigeon English has, since the programme was aired, already been shortlisted for the Booker prize. A bidding war between 12 publishers ended when Bloomsbury paid a 'high six-figure sum' - an incredible amount for a debut novel.
And it merits its praise. Pigeon English is tragic and funny in equal measures. The murder of Damilola Taylor on the North Peckham estate in 2000 is the story's real background.
Kelman delves into gang violence in inner-city London from the viewpoint of 11-year old Harrison Opoku, a recent arrival from Ghana in much the same way as Damilola's family had emigrated from Africa some years previously.
Kelman makes you think you're listening to an eleven-year old rather than a 30-something ex-local government worker: "In England they celebrate summer coming by everybody opening their windows wide up and putting their music on proper loud. It's a tradition. That's how you know it's summer. You have to do it when the sun first comes out. Everybody does it together."
And other events make brief entries into the dialogue: "Connor Green says the tube police have machine guns and if you run away they shoot you."
Pigeon English is a stunning debut and one I'd wholeheartedly recommend to all readers.
In The Socialist 15 March 2012:
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