Navigating Their Way Through Bizarre Alien Cultures, Two Cases of Culture Shock emerge war-torn and enriched
Fledgling Press are to be lauded for investing in new novel-writing talent – in a time when mainstream publishers have become every bit as risk-averse as the cowardly studios of Hollywood, it is to the small presses we must turn for the shock of the new.
Here are the paths untrodden, where agentless authors huddle, nursing the bruises of the dog-eat-corpse ruthlessness of the self-publishing industry, and desperately hoping to be the next Eimar MacBride, the crossover experimentalist turned critical darling and, more importantly, hardback-shifting best seller. Kate Hunter and Jim Douglas (a pseudonymous nom de plume for two Celtic ex-pats, Jim Hickey and the late Douglas Forrester) are two of the latest debut authors to grace the Fledgling list, and on the evidence of these utterly different and yet not dissimilar novels, both are names we can expect to hear again.
The Caseroom is a nippy, lively saga of family, loyalty, love and sisterhood with lashings of unobtrusive gender politics, albeit in an often opaque Scots brogue. Kate Hunter, the author bio tells us, is genuinely a Scot, genuinely a woman, and genuinely an alumnus of the Edinburgh print trade, where her story is set. One gets the feeling, embarking on the novel, that it is a pointed love-letter to Hunter’s female ancestors, the crinolined pioneers who blazed a trail for women’s employment rights in the face of savagely misogynistic hostility. Entering the print trade in the febrile 1890s, Hunter’s heroine Iza is a plucky wee thing, brimming over with spunk and tenacity, a kind of underfed Hibernian version of New York’s ‘fearless girl’ statue, but for Iza, it is not the world ‘out-there’ which she must face down, but a vein of disapproval that runs all the way to hearth and home. In an opening chapter which may have been slightly pacier if I hadn’t had to keep going back to Google to look up the Scots dialect, Iza’s departure for her first day of work is soured by her own brother, Rab, so incensed at her transgression that he insists it would be better she had never been born.
Tokyo Nights is a formulaic but entertaining by-the-numbers thriller
This sense, keenly evoked and detailed across the first half of the book, that Iza is an object of perturbation and disapproval, gives Hunter’s narrative an almost noirish feeling of menace. Fin de siècle Edinburgh is a dangerous place for a lass like Iza, determined to make her own way in a world which would really rather she didn’t and isn’t afraid to smack her down. The fear of sexual assault is another palpable threat that hangs over Iza, for all her punishingly punctilious conformity – it is a sign of the author’s sure-footed command of her theme that Iza is able to fall in love, marry, and bear a child while simultaneously holding down a career in a man’s world. For readers unfamiliar with the early days of feminist liberation, Iza’s ability to deftly multitask family and career may seem anachronistic, but that’s very much Hunter’s point; women don’t need the patriarchy to obligingly gift them reproductive and economic rights in equal measure, because they can take it for themselves, and have been doing so for a very long time. Historical fiction too often casts women as oppressed chattels, baby-making machines yoked by their own bodies and an uncaring society, but in Iza, Hunter has created a post-Regency heroine whose commonsense pluck negates the need for any brooding Mr Darcy to lift her out of the societal mire, and when politics rears its head in the latter half of the book, Iza finds the strength within herself to endure, to overcome, and to face an uncertain future, hands on skinny hips, with her head held high.
Worlds away from wee Iza’s travails, Tokyo Nights is a formulaic but entertaining by-the-numbers thriller, packed with an excess of flashbacks and lots of spiffy Japanese nouns in italics. The back cover pushes the book as an existentialist fable, but one doubts Camus or Sartre would recognise anything in its philosophical meanderings. It’s probably better to ignore the blurb altogether and take this book for what it actually is, because while it falls short as a parable or nihilist polemic, as a crime novel it’s pretty damn good. At its heart, Tokyo Nights is a hard-boiled private detective yarn, in which Colin McCann, a two-fisted shamus from the school of Dashiell Hammett’s legendary Continental Op, pitches up in the neon nightmare of Tokyo in search of dodgy geezer (or ‘modern day heretic’ as the blurb rather optimistically dubs him) Charlie Davis. McCann has an axe to grind with Davis, or rather his employer does, and it’s a pretty standard hard-boiled noir axe at that – the dead or disgraced daughter was hardly an original plot device when Raymond Chandler used it in The Big Sleep, and in countless crime novels since, it has become no fresher. In the hands of the Jim Douglas gestalt entity, the old cliché kicks us straight into touch, with the formulaic intensity of a tried and trusted recipe. Somebody’s daughter is dead. Somebody must be to blame. The parents have plenty of cash to splash around. Garnish with cigarettes and serve warm.
both novels successfully navigate their way through bizarre alien cultures
Along the path to the resolution, which comes with a rather surprising and affecting late spurt of emotional depth from the cartoonishly loathsome Davis, McCann encounters the rote litany of pulp characters – a good girl who looks bad, a bad girl who looks good, a cultured psychopath and some cannon-fodder rapists, with the wrinkle that these central casting walk-ons are inscrutably Japanese and occasionally unpredictable. If all this sounds like criticism, it really isn’t meant to – devotees of crime fiction are creatures of habit, always keen to relive our favourite tropes in new settings, and now that the ScandiNoir boom has lost some of its sizzle, the surviving half of the Jim Douglas pairing is more than welcome, as far as this reviewer is concerned, to plug the gap with second or third helpings of cold-as-sushi Nipponese nefariousness.
What unites these books, which share neither genre nor viewpoint, is their cultural specificity. Hunter, an Edinburgh native, has a (mostly) glorious ear for Scots dialect and the dreams of the young and penilely-disadvantaged, and Jim Douglas is no more guilty of cultural appropriation than Robert van Gulik, the Dutch academic who wrote the celebrated Judge Dee series of historical Chinese crime novels. While The Caseroom is set in an insider’s Edinburgh, albeit an insider with outsider status by virtue of her gender, Tokyo Nights is rigorously an outsider narrative – for every confident, pragmatic instance of Iza Ross’s geographic and social navigation of Edinburgh, there is a moment of bemused wonderment from Colin McCann, which comes to a head in Tokyo Nights’ single episode critical of Japanese culture, the violent sexual assault of two young women whose only value to society is their sexual availability to powerful men. Gender plays a less obvious role in Tokyo Nights than in Hunter’s novel, but it is an ever-present theme nonetheless, and both novels successfully navigate their way through bizarre alien cultures to emerge, war-torn and sombre yet enriched by the experience.
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