Debut Roundup November/December 2019

Posted by Sue Leonard on Monday 4th November 2019

Call Him Mine by Tim MacGabhann. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 978 1 4746 1045 2`

There’s been a dearth of interesting debuts by Irish males of late, so I was pleased when this literary thriller by newcomer Tim MacGabhann came my way. Set in recent day Mexico City, it opens when Andrew, a young, rather jaded Irish reporter finds a body lying in the street in the dodgy area of Poza Rica. He’s with his boyfriend Carlos, a photographer with a nerve of steel.

The duo are aware that they’re in a dangerous position; especially when it becomes clear that the police are wary of investigating the crime, but a story is a story, and Carlos stays on, determined to find answers. It’s no surprise when he’s killed for his efforts, but the manner of his death is too horrific to contemplate. Heartbroken, Andrew is left flailing. He can’t settle until he’s got justice, and he’s out for revenge.

Mexico City springs to life in all it’s high-wired, drug fuelled corruption. With a lifelong obsession of Mexico, the author has lived there for years – as a teacher, then a reporter, whose own drug use fuelled the cartels he was reporting on, and his knowledge of the city shines through.

The second half of the novel soars on at a fast sometimes confusing pace. Andrew’s bravery – or foolhardiness- seems rather out of a character, but that weakness of plot is of only secondary importance in a book which sings so eloquently.

Call Him Mine is no ordinary thriller. For all the toughness and details of torture, there is no doubting the author’s literary credentials. At 30, he holds an MFA In Creative Writing, and has had stories published in a raft of literary magazines. With his mixture of passion, life experience, and writing skill, his future is surely assured.

Golden Child by Claire Adam. Faber & Faber. ISBN 978 0 571 33980 8.

It’s the eighties in Trinidad – a dangerous time, when, fearing intruders, families lock their gates, and let loose guard dogs.  Clyde Deyalsingh, father to twins has extra reason to be cautious. His family have recently suffered a break-in – his wife, Joy is scared, so when 12-year-old Paul fails to return home when expected, he is especially anxious.

Darkness falls, and the twelve-year old is still missing. Clyde goes out, looking for his son, and when he calls on his brother, Romesh and his wife Rachael, looking for help, it’s clear the relationship between the two families is remarkably cool.

Peter is the golden twin. Excelling in all his exams, he is regarded, far and wide, as ‘special.’ Clyde pours his ambition into the child, set on saving to help him win a prize that will ensure he can study in America. Paul, meanwhile, is the troubled one. Considered retarded, he is certainly misunderstood, but the twins are close.

It’s difficult to believe that this searing look at family dynamics is a debut. The atmosphere and speech patterns are compellingly conveyed. It’s no surprise to learn that Claire won the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize for this clever literary novel.

Claire was brought up in Trinidad and Tobago, during the time this novel was set, but her mother is Irish, she attended a convent, and lived in Cork before she settled in London. Indeed, one of the key characters, Father Kavanagh is Irish. A young, kindly, and altogether sensible priest, he gives Paul extra coaching, and recognises that the boy’s troubles come as much from shyness and sensitivity as from dysfunction.

As the days turn into weeks, and the mystery of Paul’s disappearance fails to be solved, we learn more of the history of this extended family; of the jealousies between them, and the betrayals. The main theme, that of parenthood, and of a father’s need to do his very best for his sons, is at the heart of this tale. And this comes to a terrifying climax when Clyde is forced to choose between his sons – to sacrifice one for the good of another. Will he be able to do so, and if so, can he ever forgive himself?

That we learn so much of the country is an added bonus. Claire Adam truly is a name to watch. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.


Maker of Footprints by Sheila Turner Johnston. Colourpoint Books. ISBN 978 1 78073 243 5 

Of all the debuts I have read this year, Maker of Footprints has surprised me the most. I had no expectations of it; I’d neither heard of the book, nor the author, yet from the first chapter I was intrigued.

It opens at a dinner party in Belfast. Adam Shepherd takes his girlfriend, Jenna to meet his brother – a famous photographer who was making his name in London. He’s left, dragging his wife Dianne, a glamorous but spoilt socialite on the pretence that his newly widowed mother needs him. It’s immediately clear that there’s tension between the brothers, but at the start, we don’t know why.

An academic, or, as Dianne calls her, a study bug, Jenna is an innocent. A minister’s daughter, she’s used to being good – and doing what others expect of her, but she’s bored, and feels stuck. Adam is providing diversion, but he seems a safe option. And the minute she meets Paul she’s drawn to him, rather against her better judgement.

The two have a lot in common. Like Paul, Jenna loves nature, and she appreciates his wildlife photography as the art that it is. She has patience – and enjoys watching him as he waits, watchfully, in order to get a perfect shot. But he’s married, so she pulls back from spending too much time with him. And he blows hot and cold.

The women form a kind of friendship. Dianne has no one else, and she enjoys handing on tips on beauty and style. She feels a bit lost. Paul is far from easy, and she pines for London, and her full-on social life. She can’t understand why her husband upped sticks and lost his ambition.

There’s a wonderful sense of place in this mesmerising novel. Rossnowlagh, a beautiful strand in Donegal where key scenes take place, is almost a character in itself. The contrast with London, where some of the action occurs could not be more apparent.

There’s a pleasing lyricism in the prose, but it’s the people who really carry the book. They’re nicely rounded; the relationships between all of them are nuanced, and they all develop during the course of the novel.

They surprise us too. At the start Jenna seems too ‘good’ to be interesting. To her, life seems very black and white. When Adam messes up – misbehaving at a party she ends things with him saying,

“I could never be with a man who got drunk. Not even once.”

There are many surprises in Maker of Footprints. They are planted throughout to make us realise why the characters relate to each other the way they do. But the shock towards the end left me reeling. This is a novel that stays with you, the characters lingering in your mind.


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