Life swap debut impresses

Marilou Is Everywhere

Sarah Elaine Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £12.99

When a beautiful, well-off, mixed-race teenager called Jude, also known as Marilou, goes missing from her Pennsylvania home, most of the local people are indifferent. But not 14-year-old Cindy Stoat, whose brother used to go out with her and who has idolised and envied Jude for years. Cindy’s own mother has upped and left, leaving her in the care of her “basically feral” brothers, and her life feels empty. She looks in on Jude’s confused and alcoholic mother, Bernadette, whose clouded mind mixes Cindy up with her missing daughter. Justifying her actions by telling herself that the deception is doing them both good, Cindy slips into the space Jude has left behind in her mother’s life, dressing and acting like her, until she takes it too far and steps over a line. Smith’s novel is an excellent debut, told in lyrical by sure-footed prose, whose overriding tone is one of compassion for its characters. Beautifully written and enthralling.

Love Notes From a German Building Site

Adrian Duncan

Head of Zeus, £8.99

In Duncan’s first novel, a young Irish couple, engineer Paul and aspiring art curator Evelyn, move to Berlin, the former getting a job working on the renovation of a building in Alexanderplatz and having to adjust to living in an unfamiliar culture and learning a new language while in a pressured work environment. The author is himself a structural engineer who splits his time between Berlin and Ireland, so we can assume that this is at least semi-autobiographical. It’s refreshing to read a work of fiction from an engineer’s perspective, both in terms of his depiction of the culture of a building site and in the way he imposes order, however unconventional, on his material. Thin on plot, the novel’s richness comes from the way it evokes the experience of being a migrant worker, and from Paul’s musings about the world as his sense of dislocation deepens – particularly his fascination with the German language and the gap between abstract thoughts and concrete reality.

The Bramble and the Rose

Tom Bouman

Faber & Faber, £8.99

Widowed and adrift when he took a job as sole policeman in the mountain town of Wild Thyme in Pennsylvania, Henry Farrell has got himself sufficiently together by the third book of Bouman’s series to marry again. A headless body, half-eaten by a bear, is found in a ravine, and Farrell, out in the woods tracking the bear down, is confronted by a very human assailant. It emerges that the victim was murdered, and that he’s a private investigator. As Farrell tries to work out why the PI was in Wild Thyme and who killed him, an old affair comes back to haunt him and he himself is suspected of murder. From time to time, The Bramble and the Rose struggles to keep up the momentum of the murder plot, and occasionally tests one’s suspension of disbelief. But it’s redeemed by terse and moody first-person narration from Farrell, a military veteran and loner who is, by his own admission, prone to anxiety and depression.

Alastair Mabbott