‘I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t make the short list of many a prize at the end of the year’ – First Novel by Nicholas Royle

First Novel by Nicholas Royle opens with his protagonist, Paul Kinder, book sniffing:

‘I take down a book from the shelf above: James Lasdun’s The Horned Man. I hold it to my nose and flick through the pages using the soft pad of my thumb. It has a woody smell. Trampled grass, funfairs. A hint of caramel? I put it back on the shelf.

Admit it, fellow book lover: we’ve all done it. And that’s not the only thing Paul Kinder does that we, book-obsessed fools, also do: he collects books, specifically A-format Penguins – orange/black, grass-green and white – and white-spined Picadors, which he displays (alphabetically of course) in various designated bookcases around his house; he’s saved clippings of the weekly edition of the ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series that ran in The Guardian, which he takes examines regularly, paying particular attention, of course, to the books displayed, and he turns his life into a narrative, including a recognisable cast of minor characters:

Overcoat man is one of numerous instantly recognisable characters that I see around the village, such as Laundry Bag Man, Umbrella Lady, Polling Station Man and Dog Man.

But narratives are also Paul Kinder’s life; he’s a novelist and creative writing tutor at an unnamed university in the north-west of England. He’s in the process of writing his second novel while teaching a ‘First Novel’ course to his creative writing students.

However, his life is further complicated by more prosaic matters: firstly by a man named Lewis who he meets at a barbeque, finds immensely irritating and ends up forging a sort of friendship with and secondly, by the women he has sex with in his car, usually close to the airport:

‘You like planes?’ she asks amused.

‘I like it when they go over. I like to think of all those people in there travelling at 150 miles an hour right above our heads. Some of them relaxed – reading, doing a Sudoku. Others terrified as the ground approaches ever faster. Toy cars revert to normal scale and ants become human.’

Paul’s story is punctuated by that of Raymond Cross, a man who has joined the RAF in order to be ‘insulated from the pain that had cut him off from England’. Raymond’s story is written by one of Paul’s students, a young woman called Grace who seems to invent opportunities to see Paul, bumping into him at his local secondhand bookshop and asking for his advice.

First Novel is not just about Paul and Grace’s stories though, it’s about our ability to turn our lives into narratives: the embellished tales that we tell our colleagues about our social lives and our family and friends about our colleagues, as well as the life stories – edited with our own spin – that we tell the lovers and friends we meet in adulthood. When our protagonist first meets his adulthood friend Lewis, Lewis complains about pilots, whom he describes as ‘Unreliable. Untrustworthy.’ He could be talking about us or indeed Paul, our very own pilot, who’s taking us for quite a narrative ride.

Any Cop?: Nicholas Royle has produced the holy grail: a literary page-turner. Although it’s published in January, I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t make the short list of many a prize at the end of the year.

Naomi Frisby


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