I’m sure that debut novels must have a tougher battle to get onto the Man Booker longlist. Without an established author reputation they would really have to shine to stand out from the pack. And here is one shining example. American author Reeves has set this haunting tale in 1920’s Alabama and has created many moments that will certainly stick in my mind.
Roscoe Martin is married to a farmer’s daughter and on her father’s death is expected to take over the running of the land. This is not in his blood and he finds himself taking out his frustration on his wife and young son. That is until he thinks of a way of combining his passion for electricity with saving the family business. He decides to illegally bring power to the farm by tapping into existing power sources. He drafts in sceptical African-American help Wilson and the two change the fortunes of the farm. Temporarily. Tragedy and incarceration ensue and the tale is told in two narratives- a third person relating the events and a first person from Roscoe in prison. Sometimes a story will just draw you in by having that something extra special. I’m not sure if it is the unpredictability of Reeves’ plot, the vivid characterisation or readers’ sympathies being all over the place but this was one book I did not want to end.
There’s the harshness of rural life in Alabama and the prison existence but throughout there is hope. Hope that Martin will get through his sentence by balancing the grimmer work with stints in the diary and library, hope that his family will stay together and that he will eventually have something to go home for. Throughout the darkest moments Reeves brings that hope into play, for example an act of human kindness or a character’s relationship with a dog, and that provides a balance which makes this really work. For me the two strongest I’ve read so far on the Man Booker longlist have been debut novels set in the past (see also review of His Bloody Project). These are major new talents who deserve much recognition and a wide reading audience.
Update: I am very surprised not to see this on the shortlist which was announced this week. It’s a very good book …………
Work Like Any Other was published in April 2016 by Scribner.