Every first novelist with even quasi-autobiographical leanings is obliged to confront a version of the same challenge: how do you reconcile an emphasis on private and often limited experience with openness to the world at large? One solution is to ignore all that other stuff, and concentrate on a single character, or pair, or small group, falling in love, learning a lesson, clearing a succession of hurdles. But at a time when the news cannot be dismissed as noise, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Brexit and Trump, Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo, that’s not a common or particularly feasible route. It isn’t just that you invite the charge of solipsism or quietism, complacency or irrelevance. What used to be “context”, the admirable second layer, is now impossible to avoid.
Jo Hamya, in the crisp and resonant Three Rooms, and Amber Medland, in her enveloping comedy of millennial manners Wild Pets, exhibit a hyper-receptivity to present travails and their effect on the burgeoning-adult sensibility. Both books start with a strikingly beady, academically accomplished ethnic-minority English woman embarking on a postgraduate degree. Both take place in the recent past – both, in fact, come to an end in late October 2019. And both derive their titles from a modernist writer in essayist mode: Virginia Woolf describing the “room of one’s own” needed by the female writer, TS Eliot invoking the cliché of Blake as “a wild pet for the supercultivated”.
But the methods are almost opposite. Medland wants to consider the pattern, or emphasise the lack of one, in the onslaught of often delightful stimuli; Hamya projects a sense of invaded peace and disrupted reflection, of being surrounded by signs all too legible as bad. Hamya was born in 1997, Medland in 1990, and this micro-generational difference can perhaps be literally measured, the more voluble Medland having come of age before the recent boom in what Hamya’s narrator identifies as “a particular kind of novel” – roughly 250 pages, concerned with a woman who is “always sad”, and written in “sparse, spiky prose”.
Three Rooms is a sly, artful, seductive, contentedly idiosyncratic piece of work. In the opening pages, Hamya’s narrator, who is never named, and whose specific ethnic background we never learn, is embarking on a master’s degree at Oxford, having previously studied in London. She is the novel’s centre, its star attraction, almost its sole feature. Supporting characters seem to take it in turns. During her year of study, we meet Ghislaine, an enigmatic fellow student who is the daughter of a pop star and the subject of his best-known song, and a mildly obnoxious hall-mate in a building once occupied by Walter Pater; then, following her move to London at the end of the academic year, there’s a cold, incipiently racist flatmate, plus a couple of uncomprehending colleagues at the society magazine (Tatler in all but name) where she works as an assistant editor. Yet the narrator’s seclusion, her morning walks and unshared bed (though for the summer of 2019 she makes do with a sofa), is ruptured by the persistent reminders of society on her phone or outside the window, and of material circumstances that keep her in a more or less constant state of fear. In an author’s note, Hamya defines her theme as “the danger of withholding capital”; if this is a variant on the Bildungsroman, then one of the lessons learned is that an elite education may not lead to gainful employment.
But while Three Rooms proceeds from a connected cluster of ideas about property, sanctuary, space and home, the writing is sensuous, instinctive and free. A polemical cause – a warts-only portrait of Generation-Y or even Generation-Z precarity – is advanced by acts of evocation. Descriptive gestures are frequently preferred to the most unobjectionable kinds of shorthand: the name “Boris Johnson” never appears, but we hear about his hair colour, his smile, his professional history; the popular cultural podcast The High Low and Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit – clearly an influence – are given a similarly defamiliarising treatment. Hamya exhibits a consistent desire to get at alien, elusive things, and test the English language in the process, to a degree that may prove divisive (I succumbed): “Eventually, September stuffed, inflated itself into the air, and when the rain came, it was not with any commitment or delight”; “By the time parliament was prorogued, I could not delude any of the drudgery of my work into the beauty of summer days.”
Wild Pets is at once more populous and extroverted, though extroversion is gradually revealed as a dead end. It starts in the summer of 2016, with Iris, a recent Oxford graduate, starting an MFA in creative writing at Columbia. Over the next three years, she spends time with lovers and classmates, as well as maintaining a full schedule of Skype calls and WhatsApp chats, her most frequent correspondent being the anarchic, exhaustingly self-possessed Nancy, who says things like, “Didion didn’t have to put up with this shit.” But spiritual loneliness remains a constant threat. The problems facing Iris – unlike those of Hamya’s narrator, who has the properties of a blank slate – are not logistical, or even entirely situational. Though her mood is affected by external developments and she touches on Trump, the Women’s March and the Muslim ban, and engages in booby-trapped debates on topics like sexual consent, what matters is her perspective, a style of processing. “I have never known what I think or what I want,” she tells us, and describes herself as closer to “a prism” than “a beam of light”.
In flashbacks we learn that Iris was raised by an Indian mother, a charismatic figure, but not altogether nurturing. As an adult, Iris struggles in her relationships, notably with her absentee father who puts her up in his flat in New York, and her on-off musician boyfriend Ezra, who is back in England and then, after his band takes off, touring the world. Iris’s failure to connect with her surroundings and with other people, to find meaning and show trust, is crystallised in the opening passage, a tickling riff – one of many – in which she describes her struggles with the Manhattan grid system and the attempts of the men she meets to explain it: “They do this by repeating, look, it’s a grid.” The novel’s length – 400 busy, constantly witty, at times frazzling pages – can be taken as a counterpart of Iris’s predicament, her yearning for structure in the face of so much activity: the nights out and fiction workshops, the Spotify playlists and endless back-and-forth, the brute force of chronology.
A possible advantage of the upheavals of the past five years, for novelists if not for the rest of us, is that life in the West has acquired a feeling of high stakes to which it might not otherwise have ready access. Social or political backdrop has become indistinguishable from, or anyway moved closer to, the realm of everyday event. Of course, the novel as a form is always negotiating a joint inheritance, a fealty to ideas of selfhood and a collective vision, an identity of not-quite-poem, not-quite-essay but with features, and ideally the pleasures, of both. It’s a tangled tradition continued and renewed in these disparately vivid, winning and adventurous books.
Jonathan Cape, 170pp, £12.99
Faber & Faber, 416pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook