Life can be well 'ard in Hounslow
Hephzibah Anderson finds verve and nerve in Gautam Malkani's Londonstani as she rounds up the latest debut fiction
The chances are that you will already have heard a bit about Londonstani (Fourth Estate £12.99, pp343), Gautam Malkani's debut novel set among the rudeboy 'desis' and 'goras' of Hounslow, west London. Rumour may have reached you of the fat figure that it fetched at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair or the lewdly witty obscenities that strew its pages. You may have heard that this portrait of the 'innit' generation - those boys and girls whose text-dexterous thumbs are more eloquent than their tongues - is, in fact, the work of a 30-year-old Cambridge-educated journalist. Yet these details neglect its defining verve and nerve.
The novel centres on four failed A-level students learning about 'bling-bling economics' via a profitable sideline unlocking stolen mobile phones. Their ringleader is Hardjit, a muscled tough whose right biceps carry a tattoo of a Sikh Khanda symbol, though it's pumped up enough to accommodate 'a whole page a Holy Scriptures'. Squat Ravi is a 'yeh, blud' man who fancies himself as a rake, cruising the streets in a borrowed 'Beemer' with lilac bodywork to match the colour of the girls' panties he pulls off inside. Or so he says. Amit is a paler character, caught in the cross-cultural feuds ignited by his big brother's impending wedding.
Casting a watchful eye over all this is our narrator, Jas, a reformed nerd whose slavish adherence to 'rudeboy rules' makes for touching comedy. 'I still can't attain the right level a rudeboy finesse,' he laments. 'If I could, I wouldn't be using poncy words like attain and finesse, innit. I'd be sayin' I couldn't keep it real or some shit.'
As their 'fone' scam leads them into ever-deepening water, Jas moons over a Muslim girl, and depression, homophobia and religious tensions simmer promisingly in the background.
Its plot may seem superficially teenage, but this is an ambitiously literary novel. Malkani is out to capture a subculture that not only has its own language - an expletive-rich argot informed by Bollywood, gangsta rap and global brands - but also punctuation that comes with a kick, a right foot in the face being an exclamation mark, a left foot more of a semicolon. The end result isn't without fault - characterisation occasionally runs to the cartoonish and the twist in its tail is not as surprising as it might be. Nevertheless, Londonstani is a bold debut, brimming with energy and authenticity.
For Alistair Black, the 15-year-old protagonist of What Happens Now (Abacus £10.99, pp256), ethnicity seems straightforward enough: he's 'Jewboy' to his best friend, Herby, who tolerates 'negro minstrel' impressions in return. But when he's cast in a children's TV series, Alistair is left deeply disturbed by its Anne Frank-style storyline and by a real-life subplot involving his pretty co-star, Alice.
Retreating into a private world of make-believe, he loses the knack of separating fact from fiction. Cut to 15 years later and neither he nor Alice has lived up to their adolescent potential. Splicing then with now, Jeremy Dyson's original novel probes the perils of an overactive imagination. It's as mordant and original as you would expect from The League of Gentlemen's co-writer.
Growing up, Nigerian-born Segun Afolabi lived in Congo, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, Japan and America. It's not surprising, then, that his debut short stories should be clustered around the notion of A Life Elsewhere (Jonathan Cape £11.99, pp274).
In 'The Wine Guitar', an ageing musician, whose wife has returned to their homeland and whose children have gone native, finds the taste of his past dished up in a London restaurant. The troubled teenager at the heart of 'People You Don't Know' is sent to stay with his half-brother in the sun, where he overcomes his fear of 'the next day, the next week, the next whenever'.
And in 'Monday Morning', the story that won Afolabi last year's Caine Prize for African Writing, a young refugee boy steps into a glass lift and ascends high above the urban clamour of his new home, into 'emptiness that was untouched and beautiful'. These impressionistic tales sharply evoke landscapes both physical and mental.
In the life of floundering Philadelphia academic, Logan Smith, elsewhere is Las Vegas and it's only meant to last a weekend. Yet there the hero of Thomas Legendre's The Burning (Little, Brown £14.99, pp407) falls for a flame-haired croupier, and when a teaching job in the desert is offered, he seizes it.
Told in bullish prose, this is a novel that grips from the first page, yet the story it weaves is as thought-provoking as it is compelling, describing what happens when Logan dreams up a revolutionary theory that questions the planet's future.
Finally, pop historian Alison Weir turns to fiction in Innocent Traitor (Hutchinson £12.99, pp406), a polyphonous account of the tragic, if well-rehearsed, story of Lady Jane Grey. Pieced together from assorted first-person accounts, it offers the viewpoints of everyone, from Jane's mother to the future Mary I. Though gutsy stuff, it draws its substance from skills honed by Weir in her day job.
Courtesy of The Observer