Some of the most exceptional British and Irish debut authors of the year have been honoured by being named in the Costa First Novel Shortlist 2016 – but which one will be the winner? Below is a round-up of these remarkable titles.
Alice Adams, Invincible Summer
The exciting highs and desperate lows of adulthood are illustrated in this beautiful, intricate work, which demonstrates how important lasting love and friendship can be in a hectic world. The story features a tight-knit group of friends – Eva, Lucien, Sylvie and Benedict – who graduate together in 1997, excited to pursue their hopes and dreams. Eva, deeply in love with party animal Lucien and desperate to escape the socialist politics of her upbringing, goes to work for a big bank. Eva’s infatuated admirer Benedict goes on to do a PhD in physics, whilst siblings Sylvie and Lucien opt for a more laidback existence, Sylvie an artist and Lucien a club promoter. However, the group’s dreams and aspirations are continually denied as they progress through the years, and they find themselves longing for their youth again. The four are drawn back together again by heartbreak and disappointment – but in ways they could never have foreseen.
Susan Beale, The Good Guy
This novel tells a captivating tale about marriage, love, deceit and self-delusion. Set in 1960s suburban America, the story features Ted, a car-tyre salesman, and his wife Abigail, who longs for more than the tedious life of a housewife. Then along comes Penny, a single girl who longs for everything that Abigail has – the husband, the house, the baby. When Ted and Penny are unexpectedly brought together, Ted becomes infatuated, and starts planning a whole new life with Penny at its core. But this is only fantasy, and when reality hits, the consequences threaten everything – and everyone – he treasures.
Joanna Cannon, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
This entertaining, comical yet mysterious read stars Grace and Tilly, two ten-year-old girls determined to discover the whereabouts of their missing neighbour, Mrs Creasy. The girls decide that the best way to do this is through finding God, and so they go door-to-door to locate him. Several other mysteries are revealed throughout the novel – including an instance of arson and the enigma of what a group of neighbours did nine years ago – and, to explore these various threads, the story is told through six additional perspectives. This gives the reader a valuable insight into the lives of the neighbours, such as Dorothy, bullied by her menacing husband, Eric; Brian, who’s clearly been drastically over-mothered; and John Creasy, Mrs Creasy’s husband. Secrets abound in this particular community, making for an intricate, intriguing tale, in which all will be revealed.
Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon
This poignant tale about identity, love and heart-breaking loss wonderfully evokes the culture of 1980s suburban Britain and shares the story of nine-year-old Leon. He and his beloved baby brother Jake are taken into care when their mother is struggling to cope. Belong long, however, Jake, a baby born to two white parents, is whisked away by brand new parents, and Leon – born to a white mother and a black father – is inevitably left behind. Leon must learn to cope with this, but misses his brother intensely. Some things still make him happy, however, like Curly Wurlys and riding his bike really fast downhill – and, most importantly, stealing enough coins so he can rescue his brother and mother someday. Featuring a wonderful childlike perspective, a lot of heartache but a lot of hope, this touching story gives readers a fascinating insight into adoption in 1980s London, and reveals the despair and disappointment some children must endure.
Guinevere Glasfurd, The Words in my Hand
This fascinating book re-imagines the true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for a pedantic English bookseller, Mr Sergeant. She yearns for knowledge and desperately wants to write, but, as a woman and a maid, she is held back by her position in society. When an enigmatic lodger arrives, however, things will change dramatically – particularly when it transpires that the mysterious Monsieur is French philosopher, René Descartes. This wonderful work weaves together the tales of Descartes’ search for reason and Helena’s desperation to write, as their worlds collide and overlap, and their feelings for each other deepen. Helena has lots to learn about literacy, but can teach Descartes much about emotion and love. But when Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy, can their love survive it? Historical fiction at its finest, The Words in my Hand gives voice to one of the many previously silent women of history.
Simon Barnes, The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity’s Heartland
Everyone has a special place they hold very dear to their heart. Simon Barnes found this place in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, when, on his first morning, he awoke to find elephants eating the roof of his hut. In this beloved place, he has known peace, danger, discomfort, fear and a deep sense of ‘oneness’ with the Valley, nature and the world. The Sacred Combe explores the special places of both the mind and the world, giving special attention to the Luangwa Valley and the support of Pam Carr, the Valley’s great artist. It’s about the search for paradise and the eternal quest to find such bliss everywhere.
Wyl Menmuir, The Many
This gritty and mysterious tale follows Timothy Buchannan, who buys a derelict house on the edge of a coastal village, and starts to renovate it so that his wife can join him there. The villagers are perturbed to see smoke rising from the chimney of the old house, becoming first intrigued, then obsessed. Timothy becomes more and more entangled in the uneasy life of the little village, particularly when he offers to take the fisherman Ethan out to sea. When Timothy begins to ask questions about the previous owner of the house, Perran, he is given only vague answers and confronted with an increasing animosity. Timothy starts to question why he really came to this isolated place, and must face an uncomfortable truth. The effects of loss are explored in this novel, as well as the anguish that strikes when our very foundations are swept away.
Francis Spufford, Golden Hill
Set in 1746, when New York was but a small town on the edge of Manhattan Island, this story features a delightful and handsome stranger, Mr Smith, just arrived from England. When he goes into a counting house on Golden Hill Street, it turns out he has an order for a thousand pounds which he wishes to cash – a perplexing yet compelling proposition. Can this unfamiliar man be trusted with his fortune, however, when he refuses to say what he will do with it, and in a place already full of financial corruption? It seems that a young man in fledgling New York can have it all, where a quick mind and a clever tongue can help him reinvent himself, fall in love – but also land himself in a whole lot of trouble. So what will happen when the enigmatic Mr Smith falls for Tabitha, his creditor’s daughter?
Natasha Walter, A Quiet Life
Laura Leverett’s double life began the moment she stepped onto the boat which would take her across the Atlantic in 1939. With dreams and aspirations to learn and to love, she was inspired by a Communist woman she met on the journey. In London, she finds herself caught between two worlds: the suave society of her cousins and their upper-class friends, and those who passionately strive to forge a new society. Then she comes across a man who seems to weave the worlds together – but he hides a secret she could never have imagined. She becomes entangled in his secretive life as both love and fear grow. This novel takes the reader on a journey from London to Washington to the potential respite of the English countryside – but Laura must confront the sinister consequences of her youthful idealism. Passionate, intense and enthralling, this novel grips the reader and doesn’t let go until the final page is turned.