A trio of fresh new voices If you are looking for ideas for New Year's resolutions, why not resolve to read something completely new this January? Though this might not sound like the wildest suggestion, let's face it, when was the last time you bought a book by an unknown author? Thankfully, January is a good month to gamble on unknowns. Here's a look a three debut novels definitely worth checking out in 2000. Interested in medieval settings? You know, stories with castles and serfs. Well, if you are, then The Testament of Yves Gundron (Farrar, Straus ∧ Giroux, $25, 0374221790) is right up your hedgerow. This debut by Emily Barton invites us into Mandragora, a small, medieval country located in the interior of a remote island. In Mandragora we meet Yves Gundron, a fairly ordinary peasant farmer. Yves works hard in the fields to support his family, and one day, in an inspired moment, he invents the harness, an implement that makes life just a little less difficult for himself and everyone else. But if the creation of the harness comes as a revelation to the Mandragorans, then you can only imagine what the appearance of Ruth Blum, an anthropologist from Boston does to this primitive society. In this imaginative first novel, Barton continually surprises us with her quirky plot changes. As you might have guessed, Mandragora turns out to be a secluded medieval society somehow forgotten by a world brimming with 20th-century conveniences. Her novel thus details the emotional and psychological upheaval of a community suddenly caught between the Middle Ages and modernity. Plot surprises aside, the real fun in this book lies in Barton's take on the medieval mind. Written from Yves Gundron's point of view, this clever novel pokes fun at the habits and suspicions of Mandragora's backwards inhabitants. Burton deftly captures the dispositions of these charming simpletons as she sets them up for their shocking communal epiphany. This novel is a fine-tuned comedy well suited for fans of historical fiction. In an equally imaginative albeit less fantastical vein Zoe Heller's debut takes a more serious look at life's surprises. In Everything You Know Heller takes on the voice of an aging British writer convalescing from a heart attack in Mexico. Willy Muller is a man born to face hardship and suffering. Consequently he is a man who despises just about everything. A true misanthrope, Muller's rage at the world manifests itself in his verbal and psychological abuse of those closest to him. His girlfriend, his agent, his nurses, and his few friends all bear the brunt of his caustic temperament. As author, Heller does an amazing job at capturing the acidity of this aging curmudgeon, but the overall power in this story comes from the unraveling of Muller's life. Though Muller seems born to be bad, slowly we begin to understand him as a man born to experience sorrow.
Having lost his first wife in an accident for which he was blamed, Willy is completely estranged from his two daughters. During Willy's convalescence we also discover that his youngest daughter, Sophie, has recently committed suicide.
Through a strange twist in fate, Willy finds himself in possession of Sophie's diary. While recovering, he reads his daughter's journal in an attempt to recapture something of her lost life. This is a heartbreaking tale told masterfully by a writer seemingly wise beyond her years. Heller writes convincingly from Muller's point of view, but the real triumph here is the depth of her insight into the tragedy of this man's life. For all the story's bitterness, this is a truly engrossing book. Heller surely will be a writer to watch in years to come. Eliza Osborne's debut, The Distance Between (Soho Press, $24, 1569471800), also takes a hard, sober look at family tragedy. Like Heller, Osborne captures a character who is forced to survey the more difficult terrain in life. This well-crafted novel follows Mattie Welsh as she travels by car to her parents' home in Pennsylvania. Mattie's elderly parents have been injured in a car accident. Osborne's novel thus focuses on the inward monologue of a woman faced suddenly with her parent's mortality. The Distance Between relates a stirring personal journey. Osborne's writing is electrifying in its poetic intensity. There are some passages in this novel that recall the furious intensity of Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish, while other sections are reminiscent of the subtle, lyrical gifts of T. S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It is not often that novelists bring poets to mind, but Osborne is a writer of such inestimable talent one cannot help but hear poems in her prose. Yet it is not just fascinating language that brings poets to mind. Like Eliot and Ginsberg, Osborne's writing tackles timeless issues. Her novel is a poignant meditation on family, love, and loss wrapped in a plot that basically involves nothing more than a woman and a car. Here is a debut of a highly admirable order. From the humorous to the heartbreaking, these three novels make astounding debuts. So this new year, try some new authors. They won't disappoint.
Charles Wyrick is a writer and musician living in Nashville.