11 DECEMBER 2004, Page 44

A choice of recent first novels

Sophie Lewis

THE FLOOD by David Maine Canongate, £12.99, pp. 272, ISBN 184195537X £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard John Murray, £12.99, pp. 400.

ISBN 0719567017

£11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 HOMELAND by R. H. Weber Dewi Lewis, £8.99, pp. 192, ISBN 1904587127 SCRIPTGENERATOR ® TM by Philippe Vasset Serpent's Tail, £7.99, pp. 160, ISBN 1852428627 A11 writing has some literary precedent; where better then for a first novelist to find inspiration than the Bible, the first book? David Maine takes the few, terse chapters of Genesis that comprise Noah's story for his striking reconstruction of this crucial episode in Christian history. The Flood introduces us to `Noe', 'still a vital old corker' at the age of 600, 'the wife', and their family of three sons and three daughters-in-law. Maine's skill lies in the combination of faithfulness to the familiar authorised version — the relevant biblical verse prefaces each chapter, so the old story unfolds in parallel to the novel — and imaginative exploration of the various characters as they suffer in the throes of God's devastating miracle. Sem is the obedient one who devotes himself to prayer; Cham is practical and a sceptic, yet without his know-how the ark could never have been built; Japheth cares about little beyond his

pretty wife, but he too will have to grow up in the course of the nightmarish voyage.

Maine's counterpoint to the Bible overflows with physicality: the humans 'rut' with little concern for privacy; sickness and the skies, elation and exhaustion are described in violent and sensual detail. We can almost smell the squalor of the ark and, as Noe's crazy project lurches from crisis to crisis, we come to question the distinction between religious belief and pure madness. Still, the story leaves an overall impression of indomitable moral faith and earthy good humour. As one long-suffering daughter, tasked with collecting pairs of all the animals in the northern hemisphere, dryly observes, 'The problem with people who think that God will provide is that they think God will provide.'

Just as richly and sensually written, Mr Timothy is no stocking-filler but one to buy now, since Louis Bayard's novel is deliberately set in the countdown to Christmas. The master-work here is Dickens's sentimental ghost story A Christmas Carol. Its sequel gives us Dickens in a new style, as 'Tiny Tim' Cratchit, now grown up, estranged from his family and haunted by his father's ghost, becomes the resourceful investigator of a full-blown murder mystery. Why does he keep finding foreign girls dead in gutters, mysteriously branded with the letter `G"? What is his brothel-keeper landlady's guilty secret, and will Mr Timothy find out in his midnight dredgings of the Thames? Aided by street-boy Colin the Melodious, who rivals the Artful Dodger for comic timing, and a motley cast of bobbies, cabbies and story-spinning old sailors, Mr Tim crisscrosses a vivid and filthy London to bring the truth to light before the fateful day of Christmas. Bayard's writing treads subtly in Dickens's footsteps, offering us his own slant on an enthralling world of dirt, decadence and comedy.

R. H. Weber's Homeland is for those who prefer to face the troubles of our times headon. It is April 2008, and three people tell their stories. American professor Paul Vines simultaneously begins a new literature class at a Berlin university and an affair with a married German student. At Guantanamo Detention Camp, criminal psychologist Lara Ivans gains experience of interrogation techniques. And in JFK airport, FBI agent Dougherty investigates a suspicious tourist whose background is uncannily similar to his own. Each character is linked to the others in unexpected ways, and each faces moral questions of frightening contemporary relevance. Torture at Guantanamo is described in sickening detail, hut the love relationships between the various characters are finally much more powerful. Caught in his or her own tangle of compromises, each hesitates between independence and insecurity. Weber's theme is fear: of loneliness, of guilt, of an invisible, malign super-power. Fear 'oozes' everywhere, 'like an invisible gas, a manufactured menace ...'. Ample quotation from Koestler's Darkness at Noon, the text

that Vines is teaching, underlines Weber's point in this dark, impressionistic novel: overshadowed by terrorism, we feel no safer nor have we any more control over our lives today than did Koestler's tormented characters in Stalin's Russia.

With his background in investigative journalism, Philippe Vasset is ideally equipped to play with contemporary trends of paranoia. His SenptGenerator©®" is the account of a geologist who finds fragments of a computer software manual while digging in a bleak Liberian mine. The geologist sets out to track down the rest of the manual and the company responsible for it. An unscrupulous trader who pays his way in contraband diamonds, our anti-hero follows clues across the world, and recovers additional pages of data as he goes. The manual itself makes up a large part of the book. We find ourselves reading instructions for a product which will completely do away with authors, and indeed with all `creatives'. SenptGeneratorOgwill manufacture fiction in all genres, from novels to computer games, each calculated to maximise profit according to market conditions, and entirely sourced from 'pre-existing components', i.e. from real life. This is the bizarre but riveting dystopic vision of 'a gigantic machine to fictionalise matter'. It should come as no surprise that there is a twist in the fabric of Vasset's own fiction — but it's not what you expect.