Genre round-up—the best fiction debuts

Experimentation, obscurity and ambiguity have their place in literary fiction but sometimes it’s nice to settle down with a novel that combines formal elegance with gripping storytelling. James Cahill’s Wildly Enjoyable Tiepolo Blue (Scepter £14.99) centers on Don Lamb, a sheltered Cambridge academic whose head is literally in the (painted) clouds. He’s working on an abstruse theory about Tiepolo’s ceilings, but it’s the 1990s and the Young British Artists are in the ascendant, threatening to render him even more out of touch than he is already.

When a faux pas gets him ejected from the college, his mentor Valentine Black pulls strings to install him as director of the Brockwell Gallery (a stand-in for the real-life Dulwich Picture Gallery). Before long, the gallery’s sensuous, fleshy canvases and the sprawled lovers he spots in Brockwell Park merge to raise long-suppressed desires.

The combination of arty milieu and sexual stirrings may evoke Alan Hollinghurst, but Iris Murdoch is a more obvious point of comparison. The ambivalent Val Black is a typical Murdochian “enchanter” figure, and some episodes (and characters) are more symbolic than realistic. A florid madman wearing make-up pursues Don off the bus and into the gallery one day, creating a scene. What is he but a personification of Don’s fears about his own nature? Snobbish and incompetent, Don may be difficult to like, but his painful awakening from him is delicately rendered.

Altogether more self-aware is Daphne Ferber, the protagonist of Bea Setton’s scintillating Berlin (Doubleday £14.99). Grappling with low self-esteem, Daphne flees London to the German capital to learn the language and escape bad memories. However, the dating scene is just as grim in Berlin, and her sense of alienation is only exacerbated. A discarded suitor proves hard to shake off, and vandalism to her flat de ella feeds her terror and paranoia.

Yet for all the stress, Berlin is wonderfully funny, and Daphne’s observations about modern life, men and the challenges facing young women always hit the nail.

Wealth and privilege are no guarantee of freedom from despair, as Daphne’s story makes clear, but Kiara Johnson, the young black protagonist of nightcrawling (Bloomsbury £16.99), exists on a whole other level of disadvantage. Effectively parentless and facing eviction, 17-year-old Kiara doesn’t have the option of drifting. While her older brother de ella fruitlessly seeks a career as a rapper, she’s left to worry about paying for rent and food. Taking to the streets, she becomes the unwilling sexual plaything of the local police department.

Author Leila Mottley, still only 19, fictionalises a notorious scandal in her home city of Oakland, California, with insight and precision, but also an unstoppable brio. It’s not flawless — wealthy uncle Ty is a waste of space in more ways than one — but nightcrawling would still be impressive in an author a decade older.

Yip Tolroy, the narrator of My Name Is Yip by Paddy Crewe (Doubleday £14.99) also suffers under considerable handicaps, being mute, hairless and undersized. The setting is the American South, the era the early 19th century, neither especially favorable to a person in Yip’s condition. But a kindly gentleman mentors him and gives him the writing slate which will be both his liberation from him and the cause of his downfall from him. Young Yip goes on the run with another unfortunate, and their travels lead them to emblematic encounters with the darker aspects of US history.

Crewe has crafted an olde-worlde voice for Yip, all capital letters and wonky verb forms (“I was grown”; “I did sit”), which takes some getting used to. Yip also has a fatal weakness for extended similes, and a fondness for detail and elaboration. It’s as though Crewe wants us to experience a more leisurely era, before endless connectivity chewed up our days. At times the sheer beauty of the language is its own marvelous effect. Other times it just slows the pace until the next thick twist comes along.

Form matches content in Sheena Patel’s exhilarating, disturbing I’m a fan (Rough Trade Books, £14.99). Written in brief, aphoristic segments, like mini-blogs or Instagram posts, it charts the moods and frustrations of an unnamed young woman in thrall to a toxic older lover. Her real relationship de ella is not so much with him as with the specters of his artist wife and his other girlfriend, whose seemingly enviable lives she pores over on social media.

The title points to an online world divided into celebrities and the fans who helplessly orbit them: “I am no one. I’m a fan, and because of this I can be cut out.” Race, class and privilege are mercilessly deconstructed in a voice that loses none of its authority for belonging to someone who is quite possibly deranged.

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