The Return of Captain John Emmett
By Elizabeth Speller
Virago £14.99, 448 pages
The Still Point
By Amy Sackville
Portobello £12.99, 307 pages
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever
By Justin Taylor
Harper Perennial, $13.99, 165 pages
The last British veteran of the first world war died in 2009, yet the conflict grips writers’ imaginations. Is there anything new to say? Perhaps not, but there are still new ways to say it. With its portrait of a war-blighted nation, Elizabeth Speller’s gripping first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, shares territory with Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Where Barker plays it straight, however, Speller offers a fast-paced literary thriller.
England, 1920. Former army captain John Emmett has been found shot. Suicide is assumed: the isolated action of a shell-shocked man. But Emmett’s school-friend Laurence Bartram is less sure. Was Emmett murdered? And could his death be linked to a wartime execution?
Technically, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling that, like many of the great interwar crime novels, relies heavily on reported speech. Its filigree-fine net of a plot contains a shoal of red herrings. Equally impressive is Speller’s portrait of a fearful and class-ridden England after the armistice. Britain executed six times as many troops as Germany in that war. Speller’s book bears witness to these victims, intelligently and even-handedly considering questions of culpability. Ultimately the tale she has to tell is, to quote Bartram, “no storybook sleuther” with a “tidy solution”.
Amy Sackville’s exceptional debut novel The Still Point intertwines the lives of a fictional Victorian explorer, Edward Mackley, and his great-grandniece, Julia. While Edward’s wife, Emily, devotedly waits for news of his polar expedition, Julia attends her husband’s return from the office. Her fragile 21st-century relationship seems a pale reflection of her ancestors’ romantic myth; the void at the centre of her marriage as vast as the geographical distance separating Emily and Edward.
The book brilliantly captures the smell of snow, the crew’s fear and elation, and the eerie beauty of the northern lights.
But Sackville’s real terra incognita to explore is domestic life. She writes like a younger Rachel Cusk, precise poetry undercut by dry wit and the omniscient narrator’s gimlet eye for the small epiphanies and compromises of modern love.
What would stiff-upper lipped Edward make of the youths in New Yorker Justin Taylor’s enjoyable debut collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever?
Taylor’s small-town slackers range from a boy who continues to play Tetris as the apocalypse rages outside to a teenage knicker thief caught in the act by his aunt. Happily, Taylor’s prose does not share the lack of focus shown by his characters; the result is a perceptive portrait of what might be called “Generation Whatever”, its members struggling to make choices or to know why they have made them.
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival