New leaves: the debut novels that stormed the Man Booker longlist

The longlisted debut novelists range from an established poet to a first-time author.

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When it was announced this July, the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist was declared unusual. Among the 13 titles, you’ll find a crime novel, four authors in their twenties, the first graphic novel ever to be included and, strikingly, four debut novels. Ranging from a glassy, claustrophobic dystopia and a muddy retelling of a classical myth to a narrative poem set in postwar America and a white-hot examination of love, rage and racial tensions in contemporary London, these debuts share a desire to understand how the traumas of our youth shape our lives, and a sense of how cycles of violence repeat across generations.

The most established debut novelist on the list is a Forward Prize-winning poet, the 63-year-old Scottish writer Robin Robertson. The Long Take sees pages of verse interspersed with fragments of diary entries, letters, and italicised, bloody flashbacks. We meet D-Day veteran Walker in New York City in 1946. As he moves from the east coast to LA, the noise of the city frequently sends him shuddering back to memories of war: a “car/backfiring, and he’s in France again,/that taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

The Long Take blurs the line between poetry and prose fiction but, as its title suggests, the ticks and clichés of film seep into the narrative. Arriving in LA, Robertson writes a paragraph entirely in shop signs, conjuring a dozen neon montages. Locations take on the tenor of sets: the newsroom filled with “the clattering and ching of 20 typewriters” and “the shouts of ‘Copy!’”. Filmmakers even bump into him on the street and take a shine to him: “Look, Walker, I like you. You’ve got what we call/deep focus. Long eyes for seeing.” When one colleague insists, “You know, Walker, it’s not like in the movies,” it’s hard to agree.

But like Walker’s traumatic memories, the realities of postwar America repeatedly flash into frame: the murder of Emmett Till, Eisenhower’s second campaign, Rosa Parks’s bus ride. The neglect of America’s often homeless war veterans looms larger and larger as the novel moves on, and we watch as Walker’s black friend and fellow ex-solider Billy Idaho fails to catch the breaks that Walker does, chewed up by a cruel and racist city. If this is a movie, it’s not a happy Hollywood story.

Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City similarly explores how racial tensions ignite in periods of crisis. Set around a single estate in north-west London, and told over 48 hours, the story was sparked by the 2013 killing of Lee Rigby by extremist Michael Adebolajo – which disturbed 34-year-old Gunaratne as the murderer “dressed, spoke, and looked like any number of young men” he went to school with.

A language that is both grand and colloquial, a kind of portentous slang, defines the novel. “We were London’s cowling youth,” Gunaratne writes. “Our tongues were so soaked in our defences, we hoped only to outlast the day. Just look at how we spoke to one another: ennet-tho, myman and pussyo.”

The novel weaves in the perspectives of two older, first-generation immigrants and three second-generation young men: Selvon, the athletic son of Caribbean immigrants with dreams of the Olympics; Ardan, an Irish grime fanatic and aspiring rapper; and Yusuf, a Muslim struggling with the radicalisation of his late father’s mosque. A Zadie Smith-like portrait of overlapping lives fuelled by a sense of impending catastrophe, the novel barely avoids the sense that London’s oppressive, cyclical violence is inevitable, offering only the most fragile sliver of hope – and even that can ring hollow. “I know that on the night of the riot, when the fury blind the way, I ran not for cowardice but for love,” a Windrush immigrant says of his refusal to retaliate against white supremacists in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots. “And doing anything for love in a city that deny it, is a rebellion.”

The most thrilling debuts on the list are those from 28-year-old Daisy Johnson and 29-year-old Sophie Mackintosh. Johnson’s first book Fen was a strange collection of short stories that saw the women of East Anglia’s fenland eating men, and transforming into eels. Everything Under is grounded in a more recognisable material reality, never taking such direct leaps into the surreal, but remains haunted by shadowy creatures, metamorphosis, lurking threats of violence, and the sense that “we are determined by our landscape”.

And, of course, our families, and our language. Gretel is a lexicographer, spending her days alone examining the various meanings for words such as “break” and “dread”. She often returns to thoughts of her childhood spent on a canal boat with her impulsive, reclusive mother Sarah, their private world defined by a private vocabulary.

The recollections of that “different language, applicable only to that time, to us” – words such as harpidoodle, sheesh, duvduv, effie, sprung, and a terror known only as the Bonak – are now all that link Gretel to Sarah, who abandoned her at 16 and disappeared. With a plot that relies on ancient myth for its scaffolding, this story of how “the places we are born come back” is a triumph: a novel that feels inexorable, messy and profound all at once.

Where Everything Under is smeared with dirt, propelled by the rushing motion of the river, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure is eerily still and pure – with saline bite. Sisters Grace, Lia and Sky live with their mother in isolation, on an island in a grand, faded, institutional home. This is their late father King’s utopia: a centre for damaged women, far away from the mainland – a place where male violence has graduated to the status of disease. There are whispers of toxins, of poisonous air, of scream therapy and the water cure, of perverse appetites, of the unimaginable strength of mainland men. After women stop coming to the centre, King dies and, for a long while, nothing happens. And then the men come.

Mackintosh writes in prose that is strikingly clear and direct, yet vague, placeless, uncertain. “Once we have a father,” the novel opens, matter-of-factly, “but our father dies without us noticing.” We never know the details of the mainland’s horrors, or even if they’re real at all. The turns in Mackintosh’s plot come slowly and unsurely. Our guard is up against the three visiting men, but she encourages us to let it down and re-erect it at different points regularly in order to shift our suspicions, and to question where violence stems from in our own society as much as in this suffocating microcosm.

“Trauma is a toxin that hooks into our hair and organs and blood and becomes part of us,” the book explains. “These things sit inside us like the misshapen pearls we sometimes prise from oysters”. As with all four of these novelists, Mackintosh asks if it is the traumas of our pasts that ultimately pose the greatest threat to our futures, or if we can ever move forward without fear. 

The Long Take
Robin Robertson
Picador, 256pp, £14.99

In Our Mad and Furious City
Guy Gunaratne
Tinder Press, 304pp, £12.99

Everything Under
Daisy Johnson
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £14.99

The Water Cure
Sophie Mackintosh
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, £12.99

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic