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The children’s hour: first novels brim with close family observations

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

14 March 2020

9:00 AM

Kiley Reid’s Philadelphia-set debut, Such a Fun Age (Bloomsbury, £12.99), is a satire on white saviour syndrome, woke culture and virtue-signalling motherhood. That it manages this balancing act with such political finesse and humour is testament to the powers of its author, who, like her heroine Emira, the 25-year-old black baby-sitter, spent time nannying for white families.

When Emira’s boss Alix calls her at a party and asks for some emergency childcare (after Alix’s home is egged, as a result of a racist gaffe made by her TV anchor husband), Emira drops everything. Short of money, about to lose her health insurance, she takes Alix’s daughter Briar to a ‘super-white’ store, where she’s accused of kidnapping the child. This dismal piece of racial profiling drives the novel.

Filming the supermarket incident on his phone is Kelley, the improbably lofty, white love interest: ‘His tallness was still shocking and his hands seemed almost freakishly huge.’ He tries to persuade Emira to quit working for Alix — who longs to tell her employee that ‘one of her closest friends was also black’ and that ‘she had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written’. But a secret past connection between Alix and Kelley derails this plan, forcing Emira to make a series of daunting moral choices pivoting on class, race and her own helpless affection for Briar. Written in fluent, Franzenian prose, Such a Fun Age is one of the funniest and most incisive recent novels about modern America.

Love and Other Thought Experiments by the actor Sophie Ward (Corsair, £14.99) is a sophisticated conundrum. Each of its nine sections explores a different dilemma — from Pascal’s wager to Heraclitus’s river — around which the story of a couple, Rachel and Eliza, is woven. While trying for her first child, Rachel wakes up one night convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. This insect interloper, and the fallout from its intrusion, has the effect of making Rachel and Eliza question their 20-year relationship, forcing a wedge between them, even after the birth of their son.


Brimming with close observation, the book is especially good on children. The son Arthur has ‘an old-fashioned, faraway set to his eyes and brow, as though he had waged some mythical battle with the gods and been punished with the life of a human boy’. Later, there’s a virtuoso section that takes the reader into the consciousness of the ant itself: ‘My dreams were of the colony and hers were often of me.’ Later still, there’s a thrillingly bonkers set piece from the point of view of Arthur during his birth. While there are moments of narrative confusion, the sheer literary ambition on show is impressive, with Ward producing a highly original first novel that also echoes European experimentalists such as Kundera and Krasznahorkai.

Braised Pork, by the Chinese author An Yu (Harvill Secker, £12.99), follows a neglected wife, Jia Jia, on a journey of emancipation after she unexpectedly finds her controlling husband, Chen Hang, dead in the bath. ‘Rigid like a broken robot’, he has left
a mysterious drawing depicting a strange half-man, half-fish creature that Jia Jia knows to have been inspired by a dream he had in Tibet. She feels ‘insuppressible revulsion and disgust towards the man she had let herself be married to’, and his demise gives her back her autonomy. He had insisted that her nascent career as an artist ‘become a hobby’; but now she takes up the brush again and later paints six different versions of the fish-man. She also begins a relationship with Leo, a bar owner whose
parents warn him against her: ‘A widow is bad luck.’

Jia Jia journeys to Tibet herself and lands a commission to paint a domestic mural of the Buddha’s life. Here the novel veers, not unappealingly, into magic realism: in the mural’s pool she see a silvery fish ‘inviting her to step into the water’, which she does, diving after it in an intensely dreamlike passage. Richly associative, the book’s imagery insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness long after it’s finished.

Chia-Chia Lin’s Alaska-set novel, The Unpassing (Virago, £14.99), is narrated by ten-year-old Gavin, though filtered through his adult perspective. His family are Taiwanese immigrants living outside Anchorage: his engineer father finds work as a plumber while his mother struggles to bring up his many siblings. When Gavin contracts meningitis he falls into a coma; waking from it, he discovers that his younger sister Ruby has died from the same virus. This disaster shapes the rest of his life, with the family seemingly unable to support each other in their loss.

Ruby’s ghost haunts them all metaphorically — and sometimes the children even hear ‘a skittering across the ceiling … the sound of marbles being rolled’. Her death also forms an analogue with the contemporaneous Challenger disaster, which Gavin sees live on TV, deepening his sense of life’s fragility: ‘In one lurch a person could be gone, just as if she had never been there.’ In a moving scene in which he and his father scatter Ruby’s ashes without his mother’s knowledge, Gavin avoids ‘looking at the coarse pile, at the shards and fragments that tried to announce themselves’.

Lin is a superb chronicler of the Alaskan landscape and its ‘19-hour nights’ and ‘ghost forests’, where spruce ‘had guzzled salt water and died. Decades later, the silvery skeletons of those trees still stood’. This stark backdrop mirrors the immigrant experience of isolation. This is powerful family saga, written in lyrical prose./>

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