by Nico Walker (Jonathan Cape) ★★★★✩
THE young American writer Nico Walker is a gift to his publishers — and a frustration. He has produced one of the year’s most talked-about books but his capacity to promote it is limited owing to the fact he is serving an 11-year sentence for robbing ten banks in four months in his native Ohio.
He bashed out Cherry on a typewriter in his prison cell and to read its adrenalised, higgledy-piggledy prose is to almost hear the keys being hit.
It’s essentially autobiographical: the story of how a privately educated middle-class kid born in 1985 signed up to the army as a medic at 19, served 11 months with honours in Iraq, returned with acute PTSD, became addicted to opioids and heroin, and turned to robbing banks in order to fund his habit.
It also unleashes a voice no creative writing course could ever manufacture. Cherry has been compared with Hemingway, Denis Johnson and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, and to that you could add Jack Kerouac, thanks to the mix of naivety and candour on every page that flirts with nihilism but is somehow never cynical.
Walker is unsparing on the horrors of Iraq and on the daily, vice-like demands of opioid addiction but he is also matter-of-fact and has an unswerving instinct for when to play it down, rather than embellish.
His knobbly, glistening sentences sometimes tie themselves in knots, sometimes go nowhere at all, but they paint an unforgettable portrait of a man who makes bad decisions but who is also, poignantly, just trying to muddle through.
Invariably, his new anti-hero of American fiction wasn’t armed when he robbed a bank — he just handed over a polite note to the cashier and endearingly hoped for the best.
This rough, raw and poetic novel gives an unforgettable voice to a hollowed-out America in the grip of an opioid crisis
Black Leopard, Red Wolf
by Marlon James (Hamish Hamilton) ★★★★✩
THE new novel from Marlon James, 2015 Booker winner with A Brief History Of Seven Killings, has been called an African Game Of Thrones.
The first in a trilogy, it’s set in a dreamy, dangerous landscape inhabited by creatures fabulous and fearsome, nurturing and malign: watergods, giants, witches, blood-drinkers…
Tracker, the unreliable narrator, can find people by scent in the worlds of both the living and the dead. But his search for a missing child, alongside the mysterious shape-changer Leopard, will take him further and cost him more than any quest he’s undertaken, ensnaring him in deadly conspiracy and betrayal.
James’s writing is extraordinarily crafted, with words of Swahili, Zulu, Hausa, Akan and many other tongues interwoven with his own coinages and exuberant, full-blooded swearing.
Black Leopard is a demanding read (more so for the gore in which its 600-plus pages are saturated) but those who like their fantasy epics bloody and original will find much to delight them. (IMOGEN RUSSELL WILLIAMS)
by Max Porter (Faber) ★★★★✩
MAX PORTER follows his hit 2015 debut, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, with this formally inventive novel about a couple whose son goes missing after they quit London for a commuter-belt village.
While police probe the boy’s friendship with an elderly local artist, there’s also muttering about the legend of Dead PapaToothwort, a bogeyman shown overseeing village goings-on in typographically dotty interludes built from his mixed-up eavesdropping.
Ultimately about the importance of keeping an open mind, Lanny is magical and mundane, a pin-sharp state-of-England satire told with the timelessness of fable. Its darkest moments put you through the wringer but the ending leaves your heart swollen and spirits lifted. (ANTHONY CUMMINS)