I spent a lot of last year singing the praises of William Boyle, the American author who was my top writerly discovery of 2018. He published two sublime, loosely interconnected novels, Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, set in the same unfashionable end of Brooklyn, and they were masterclasses in modern noir, beautifully crafted books that took the reader to unexpected places around the edges of the crime genre.
And now we have his latest offering, A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself, and it’s even better. My proof copy of the novel comes with the elevator pitch across the top: ‘Thelma & Louise meets Goodfellas’, and while that of course sounds utterly terrific, in truth A Friend… is an even more rounded and accomplished piece of writing than that potted summary suggests.
The action starts again in Brooklyn, where elderly mob widow Rena hits an old neighbour on the head with an ashtray to fend off his unwanted advances. In a panic she flees to her estranged daughter in the Bronx, where she meets her teenage granddaughter Lucia and Lucia’s neighbour Wolfie, a middle-aged former porn star.
And so the wheels are set in motion as the fallout from Rena’s initial actions have devastating consequences. The three women – Rena, Lucia and Wolfie – have to escape and end up on a road trip from hell, with various dangerous mobsters, hitmen and police in pursuit.
His portrayal of three generations of women is very tenderly handled,
This set-up is obviously a whole heap of fun, and Boyle makes the most of a very dark sense of humour, giving some of the action a definite screwball energy. But much more than that, his portrayal of three generations of women is very tenderly handled, and the reader is rooting for all of them to escape the fate that awaits them right from the first few pages.
There are no missteps in this exemplary writing. The action and plotting are convincing and surprising, the characterisation is nuanced among all the mayhem, and the description and dialogue immerse the reader in the setting and the scenario. This is riveting and unusual crime fiction that has depth, heart and soul, and I can’t wait to read what Boyle writes next.
Across to the American west coast next with the more understated but equally skilful Permission by Saskia Vogel. It’s the debut literary novel from a journalist and translator, and it deals with sexual politics, power and consent in a subtle and convincing way.
The story is effectively a kind of love triangle, but more complex than that phrase implies. Echo is a young woman grieving for her father, who was swept away by a freak wave in Los Angeles. She meets a new neighbour Orly, an older woman who works as a dominatrix, and Piggy, a middle-aged man who lives with Orly as a submissive houseboy.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
The narration is divided between Echo and Piggy, so we move deftly from the slow awakening of Echo from her catatonic grief to Piggy’s eloquent and considered backstory, how his relationship with Orly is not as simple as it might seem to outsiders.
Given the subject matter, Permission could’ve been sensationalist or titillating, but Vogel negotiates her story with a real sense of empathy and understanding for all her characters. In precise, elegant prose, she delivers an alternative feminist love story for the modern age.
A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle (No Exit, £12.99)
Permission by Saskia Vogel (Dialogue Books, £14.99)