Experimentation, obscurity, and ambiguity have their place in literary fiction, but sometimes it’s nice to settle with a novel that combines formal elegance with gripping storytelling. James Cahill is extremely nice Tiepolo Blue (Sceptre £14.99) centers on Don Lamb, a Cambridge protege whose head is literally in the (painted) clouds. He’s working on an abstruse theory about Tiepolo ceilings, but it’s the 1990s and young British artists are on the rise, threatening to make him even more out of touch than he already is.
When a misstep gets him kicked out of college, his mentor Valentine Black pulls the strings to install him as director of the Brockwell Gallery (a replacement for the real Dulwich Picture Gallery). Soon, the sensual, fleshy gallery canvases and the reclining lovers he sees in Brockwell Park merge to stir up long-suppressed desires.
The combination of arty background and sexual turmoil may evoke Alan Hollinghurst, but Iris Murdoch is a more obvious point of comparison. The ambivalent Val Black is a typically Murdochian “enchanting” figure, and some episodes (and characters) are more symbolic than realistic. A flowery madman in makeup chases Don off the bus and into the gallery one day, creating a scene. What is he just a personification of Don’s fears about his own nature? Snobby and incompetent, Don may be hard to love, but his painful awakening is delicately rendered.
Overall, Daphne Ferber is more self-aware, the protagonist of Bea Setton’s scintillating film. Berlin (Double day £14.99). Struggling with low self-esteem, Daphne flees London to the German capital to learn the language and escape bad memories. However, the dating scene is equally bleak in Berlin and her sense of alienation is only heightened. An abandoned suitor proves difficult to shake off, and vandalism to his apartment fuels his terror and paranoia.
Yet despite all the stress, Berlin is wonderfully funny, and Daphne’s observations about modern life, men and the challenges facing young women always hit the mark.
Wealth and privilege don’t guarantee freedom from despair, as Daphne’s story makes clear, but Kiara Johnson, the young black protagonist of Crawl (Bloomsbury £16.99), exists at a whole new level of disadvantage. Effectively without parents and threatened with expulsion, Kiara, 17, does not have the possibility of drifting. While her older brother searches in vain for a career as a rapper, she has to worry about paying rent and food. Taking to the streets, she becomes the unwitting sex toy of the local police department.
Author Leila Mottley, still just 19, romances a notorious scandal in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., with insight and precision, but also with unstoppable brilliance. It’s not perfect – rich Uncle Ty is a waste of space in more ways than one – but Crawl 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 from considerable handicaps, being mute, hairless and underweight. The setting is the American South, the era of the early 19th century, nor particularly favorable to a person in Yip’s condition. But a benevolent gentleman sponsors him and gives him the slate which will be both his release and the cause of his downfall. Young Yip goes on the run with another hapless fellow, and their journeys lead them to iconic encounters with the darkest aspects of United States history.
Crewe created an old-world voice for Yip, all capitals and wonky verb forms (“I grew up”; “I sat down”), which takes some getting used to. Yip also has a fatal weakness for extended comparisons and a penchant for detail and elaboration. It’s as if Crewe wanted us to experience a quieter era, before endless connectivity gnawed at our days. Sometimes the sheer beauty of language is its own wondrous effect. Other times it just slows the pace until the next horrific twist occurs.
Form matches content in Sheena Patel’s uplifting, unsettling I’m a fan (Rough Trade Books, £14.99). Written in brief aphoristic segments, like mini-blogs or Instagram posts, it traces the moods and frustrations of an unnamed young woman in the grip of a toxic older lover. Her real relationship isn’t so much with him as it is with the specters of his artist wife and other girlfriend, whose seemingly enviable lives she reflects on social media.
The headline points to an online world divided between celebrities and fans orbiting them helplessly: “I am nobody. I’m a fan, and because of that, I can be eliminated. Race, class and privilege are ruthlessly deconstructed in a voice that loses none of its authority to belong to someone who is most likely deranged.
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