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June 11, 2011 1:11 am

Here, there and everywhere

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Touch, Alexi Zentner, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99

The Sly Company of People Who Care, Rahul Bhattacharya, Picador, RRP£12.99

Bed, David Whitehouse, Canongate, RRP£11.99

A while back, I wrote how much good fiction Canada is producing, prompting various snarky comments. In Britain, Scotland excepted, it seems that Canadian culture is viewed as intrinsically ridiculous – an attitude that not even Joni Mitchell and Margaret Atwood can mitigate.

 

Yet the Canuck wave keeps coming. Its latest manifestation is Touch (Chatto & Windus, £12.99). Set in a frontier town in the early 20th century, Alexi Zentner’s first novel treads confidently in a tradition that leads from Jack London onwards.

Gold-crazed prospectors and grizzled lumberjacks endure savage hardships. Absent fathers cast shadows over sons and every crack of the river ice threatens death. Legends multiply; most involve the town’s founder, Jeannot. How he tried to resurrect his wife. How he killed the same man twice. How he met shape-shifters and sea-witches. That these pagan tales are recounted by Jeannot’s grandson, an Anglican priest, only adds to their strangeness. The result subtly expresses the tension between civilisation and nature embedded deep in the Canadian psyche and the nation’s founding myths.

 

Where Touch is very much an insider’s guide to a national psyche, Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care is about an outsider’s desire to belong. Bhattacharya’s acclaimed non-fiction book Pundits from Pakistan recounted the Indian cricket team’s 2004 tour of its sub-continental neighbour. The protagonist of his first novel is an Indian cricket journalist who moves to Guyana for a year. Perhaps because of this it never quite convinces that it’s a novel rather than a thinly disguised travelogue in which encounters with eccentrics and detailed accounts of road trips are a substitute for plot.

Structural flaws apart, however, it is beautifully written and brims with charm. Bhattacharya’s total immersion in the culture and the local patois has produced both a love letter to Guyana and a fascinating insight into that Caribbean country’s vibrant yet volatile mix of races. Definitely a book to be savoured lying in a shady hammock, with a bottle of rum and cricket on the radio.

 

And so to Bed, by David Whitehouse (Canongate, £11.99). On the brink of adulthood, Mal goes to bed, where he stays for 20 years. Friends and family react in different ways: his mother tends to his every need, his father retires to the attic, and his girlfriend pines. As the media laps up the tale of Britain’s fattest man, Mal’s younger sibling gets used to being known as the freak’s brother.

The trouble is that, as often happens with high-concept novels, Bed is crushed by the weight of its set-up. Mal as existential hero is a questionable proposition. More distasteful is the suggestion that his inaction has united the family and given them purpose, while Whitehouse’s voyeuristic descriptions of Mal’s blubbery flesh only add to the unease. Where are social services when you need them?

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival

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