Five authors from Picador’s 2012 list gathered together for what proved to be a pretty darn pleasant evening thrown for booksellers, bloggers and whoever falls in between.
This evening of “unreliable narrators”, as coined by marketing, stemmed from the lovely idea of bringing Picador’s latest authors straight to the trades folk, with readings from each author’s new novel followed by an informal meet and greet session. Expecting an overly literary evening (see event title), there was zero pretension, just some very well chosen, enjoyable extracts that were spot on giving the audience the right amount of character and atmosphere to draw us in, while maintaining that edge of suspense that makes you eager to read more - and all of these novels have something of a thriller element.
Liza Klaussmann’s TIGERS IN RED WEATHER was the big debut that suddenly hit the publishing world in the dead of summer last year, drawing publishers from their torpor to fight in an 8-strong battle to win the title. This is clearly their lead book of 2012 - Picador has produced a limited early proof run of 500 copies on beautiful quality paper. You won’t find the quotes, press contacts and usual cramming of information all over the back of a proof or the block colour, uniform text cover. Picador is quite rightly showing off the languorous, sexy and unabashedly retro chic cover. It completely evokes summer, or at least how I’d like to imagine my summers being - that is the awesome swimsuit-hat set, red lipstick and sunglasses. The bubbling family tensions and dark secrets hiding behind a facade of glamour and perfection don’t appeal quite so much.
And therein lies the ambitious comparison to Fitzgerald - revolving around an East Coast family and their sprawling home Tiger House, it is the portrait of high society rocked, and a mask gradually shattered as each of the five characters’ narratives lend a different angle on what the reality beneath might really be.
Liza Klaussmann read from a passage narrated by thirteen-year-old Daisy - a good choice for her distinct and youthful voice and the cliffhanger we were left with that could only be the crucial turning point of the novel. Daisy has been covering for her older cousin Ed all summer - he’s been doing god know’s what while they are supposed to take tennis lessons together. When he procures two ciggies, the pair head into the woods to have a cheeky smoke. Getting fed up pretty fast, he shows her an abandoned cabin he had discovered, only the atmosphere quickly shifts when they see a rug that is hiding something…
Stuart Evers then read from his first novel IF THIS IS HOME, which draws on some of the same themes, such as loss and loneliness, as his collection TEN STORIES ABOUT SMOKING. The male thirty-year-old protagonist of IF THIS IS HOME has been running away, from his home town in England to New York and a bizarre hotel, the stuff of dreams, in Vegas. But black outs and involuntary flashbacks force him to stop running and finally head back to his home to face his past, and the haunting memories of his girlfriend, head on.
Evers read a scene that captures male friendship, or at least pinpoints that moment when two people have a connection. The protagonist, newly arrived in New York, stumbles into a bar and ends up spending a long night drinking with old-timer O’Neill, bonding until dawn over whisky, two lonely souls thrown together. O’Neill knows that the boy has a story, that there’s something he’s running away from.
That something is linked to the second first personal narrative of the novel - carnival queen Bethany, the protagonist’s girlfriend, a decade earlier. This is where the novel falls down - Evers isn’t so strong on the young female voice. And after a very promising, highly charged start with a great mysterious Vegas complex setting, grey market-town England just doesn’t have the same wow factor. This combined with the unexpected shift into semi detective thriller territory lost me - it’s being too many things at once, without ever giving a strong emotional punch.
Howard Cunnell’s THE SEA ON FIRE, his second novel but the first to be published by a big publishing house, centres around a diving trip in the Red Sea. Narrator Kim is an avid diver, drawn away from his stable and loving family life in Brixton by a job as a dive instructor on a private trip to remote islands in the Red Sea - a trip where spectacular dives mix with drug-fuelled parties. Back on terra firm, and this takes a change of direction towards literary thriller. Kim is a man divided, and this is about the conflict between living out dreams and facing responsibilities, the senseless actions taken to resist being anchored and their repercussions, and the far-reaching effect of traumas in the past. The protagonist Kim has a meditative outlook and his philosophy of the world is taken through the prism of life under the sea.
What Howard Cunnell is strongest on is his lyrical, vivid writing describing the underwater world - the sublime, luminous scenery and the transcendental, liberating nature of drifting deep in the open water. So it seems appropriate that Howard read out a diving scene, as the group are surrounded by phosphurus that scatters light around them with each movement, and suddenly illuminates a shark that drifts by. This is where I wanted to be the most in the novel - not with Kim’s fellow man, but the breathtaking, striking ocean.
After an interval we were introduced to Richard House, who had a couple of cult ish novels, BRUISER and UNINVITED, published years back by Serpent’s Tail . Now he’s produced a huge project - a four book series called THE KILLS. The first, set in Iraq, follows the protagonist, again with several names and identities, on the run.
Finally we had Anna Raverat, one of the Waterstones’ debut 11 authors for 2012, read from SIGNS OF LIFE. The narrator is in her thirties, looking back a decade to a life-changing passionate affair she had with a colleague as a selfish twenty-four year old. This no doubt goes down that well-trodden route of memory-autobiography at its most fallible, but the extract Anna Raverat read out was a sensitive, striking but light depiction of young early love. It’s a moment we all know well, so this was a strong passage most of the audience probably found themselves relating to in one way or another. The scene of the protagonist and her lover jokingly arguing during a road trip about the perfect mouthful of pistachios - shelling and savouring them one by one, or preparing a few and enjoying them in one go - gets across the playful, blissful happiness at the beginning of a relationship. And the few sentences reflecting on the stable, nice but boring boyfriend she was cheating on sums up that sudden change when the passion runs out and gives way to an awkward comfort that can’t last long. Judging by the Waterstones copy, this also dives into a darker zone as the reader pieces the reality behind the narrator’s story together.