Gifted (Viking 272pp £16.99), by Nikita Lalwani, is a novel about the awfulness of being a child prodigy. Rumi, who was
ALICE, THE HEROINE of Julie Maxwell’s darkly comic debut, You Can Live Forever (Jonathan Cape 288pp £15.99), is a member of the Worldwide Saints of God, a Christian sect which promises immortality to its followers. Their leader, William P Pope, is the author of such books as Christian Life on Other Planets, and of a monthly bulletin, ‘The Plain Truth’, which contains all the latest prohibitions (mostly onanismrelated). Alice’s horrid mother and dull brother are dedicated ‘Worldwiders’, but her father, who married Alice’s mother before she converted, is not. He is a cheerfully amoral Irishman, devoted to Alice but willing to cremate murder victims in his incinerator for the right fee. Recently, Alice has begun questioning the truthfulness of The Plain Truth. She is a bright Oxford student who struggles with a religion which does its members’ thinking for them. However, she fears that apostasy might be met with damnation, and so tries (without much success, naturally) to reconcile her religion with her wider views. This is a very promising first novel, in which Maxwell demonstrates wit, elegance and great insight. On several occasions she takes a familiar phrase or notion and observes it anew, sometimes to hilarious effect. There are some unsubtle touches – the religion is so insane that Alice’s adherence to it seems improbable; also the language of a character who is Spanish is of 1970s-sitcom standard – but overall this is an excellent debut work. Another youngster tries to grow up in Zoology (HarperPress 291pp £12.99), by Ben Dolnick. Henry Elinsky, a teenager living in a comfortable East Coast suburb, drops out of college for a year and, rather than live with his parents, moves to his brother’s New York apartment, to develop his saxophone playing into a profession – something his sax-playing father never did. Unfortunately, things don’t work out smoothly. Henry takes a mundane job in the children’s zoo in Central Park, and later discovers that he doesn’t have the talent to make it as a musician. His brother’s girlfriend resents his being in the apartment, and his parents’ marriage becomes shaky. All this could be rescued by Margaret, a girl living in the same block, whom Henry falls for. However, Margaret has a boyfriend, and while she encourages Henry’s affection to a point, she never allows it to progress. Henry’s problems may mount up, but each alone – jobhatred, unrequited love, downsizing of dreams, dissolution of family – is the kind of knock experienced by many people, and Dolnick sensibly acknowledges this in the tone of the novel. For the most part, Henry remains balanced and good-humoured in the face of his trials, and the novel’s tenor is conversational and wry rather than despairing. Near the end the author briefly moves the beleaguered Henry into slightly darker territory, but with less success. However, while Dolnick may write deeper, more textured work in future, this is a controlled, well-paced, enjoyable start.
born in Cardiff to Indian parents, was five when her talent for mathematics was discovered. Since then Mahesh, her father, a mathematics lecturer, has regimented her life around study. The results are, first, that she takes A-level maths at fourteen and enrols at Oxford the following year and, secondly, that she is utterly depressed at having her childhood and her natural exuberance crushed: at one stage, while sitting a mock exam set by her father, she walks out and dials 999 simply to hear a human voice. What makes this novel successful is the author’s ability to sympathise broadly. Mahesh is not a monster; he is a solicitous father who believes that for Indian people in 1980s Britain, success comes only to those with preternatural talent. Unfortunately, in trying to do his best, he alienates his daughter and creates a life far worse than the one of mediocrity from which he tries to liberate her. Rumi herself is superbly drawn, far more interesting than the standard idiot savant of fiction. She is genuinely fond of maths, but in other respects is unspectacularly childlike: addicted to sweets, longing for friends, therefore destined never to be fulfilled by sitting in front of a mountain of past papers. Her gift is a curse, because it keeps her in isolation but is not enough on its own to sustain her. Rumi’s plight is touchingly drawn in this likeable novel. Goodbye Lucille (Jonathan Cape 320pp £11.99), by Segun Afolabi, is narrated by Vincent, a Nigerian photographer working freelance in licentious mid-1980s Berlin. Vincent longs to be a famous photographer, but is far too lazy to be anything other than average; he therefore drifts from nightclub to nightclub, living a life of empty hedonism among friends including Tunde, a Nigerian playboy, and Clariss, a gigantic transsexual. Home is a shoebox apartment with an empty fridge. Early on Afolabi captures the ennui of a directionless life very well. The sweaty clubs, throbbing to Michael Jackson and Shalamar, are effective examples of noise without emotion – all disco but no soul – and you can sense the crisis bubbling under in Vincent. However, the author does not move on from this, and the novel becomes repetitive. There are ways in which it might have gained greater purpose. Vincent has hang-ups relating to his childhood, and his relationship with Lucille, his London-based girlfriend, is decaying; meanwhile, a politician whom he photographs is murdered. None of this, however, is brought in with conviction. Lucille remains in the background, and the lack of chemistry between her and Vincent makes the plausibility of their relationship questionable. At the same time the darker aspects concerning the murder are likewise kept on the margins of the action, so the narrative soon simply meanders from club to club, much like Vincent himself. To order these books, see LR Bookshop on page 37
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007