A review of New Beginnings

The clear bent is literary fiction, and that makes this a moving collection full of provocative and evocative work from some of the most well known and respected writers working today. This is a wonderful marketing idea, and one which makes much more sense than those little booklets that publishers have been leaving in bookshops.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

New Beginnings
Sold in aid of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Earthquake Charities
by Tsunami Relief Fund (Editor)
Paperback: 256 pages
March 16, 2005, ISBN: 1596910542, RRP$14.95

It was impossible not to be moved by the “Boxing Day” Indian Ocean tsunami. Personal stories of parents whose children were torn away from their arms, and children whose parents were torn away from their sides will stay with those of us lucky enough to watch the tragedy on the news rather than experience it first hand. Some of the world’s most famous, and respected writers have donated original, and hitherto unpublished work specifically for this collection, and features a range of genres from literary fiction, to mystery, to poetry, full length short stories and novel first chapters (in both senses of the word novel. For those who bewail the overt commercialism of the publishing industry, this book is a good antidote, as almost every aspect of the book, from the writing to the editing, designing, printing, wholesaling, distribution, publicity, and even retailing fees have been donated, and so far have produced about a half million pounds in donations. So this is a courageous and inspiring effort, but it isn’t the fact that this is in aid of an excellent charity, or that it is the kind of coordinated and self-less response that should be supported which will get reader’s shelling out their own money for a copy. Readers will buy this book because it contains some excellent work.

Some of the authors wrote stories specifically for the book. Margaret Atwood’s three very short stories, “Tree Baby,” “Something Has Happened,” and “But It Could Still,” are all affirmative ones which are written about the impact of the Tsunami, specifically for this collection. All of the stories read like prosaic poems, and go deeply under the skin of those affected, both indirectly, like most of the readers, and directly:

You remember this. No, you dreamed it. Your dream was of choking, and sinking down, and blankness. You woke from your nightmare and it had already happened. Everything was gone. Everything, and everyone – fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, the cousins, the tables and chairs and toys and beds – all swept away. Nothing is left of them. Nothing remains but the erased beach and the silence. “Tree Baby“ (1)

Maeve Binchy’s “Georgia Hall” is also a short story. Engaging and quickly read, Binchy treats us to an unchallenging but enjoyable tale of female insecurity. From there, most of the pieces in this book are the first chapters of “as yet unpublished” new novels. For writers, this is a fascinating glimpse at the creation process, and it will be interesting to compare the work here with the final work. In most instances, the first chapters presented are so compelling, that it would be a hard reader indeed who wasn’t tempted to go out and buy that novel once it is released. First chapters by Tracy Chevalier, Paulo Coehlo, J M Coetzee, Nick Hornby, and Ian McEwan are standouts, and although none of these are self-contained like short stories are, and it can be frustrating to be so thoroughly taken in and then left hanging. It’s a delicious frustration though, and one which will probably work well for the author when the novels are out.

Paulo Coehlo’s “The Zahir” is particularly compelling, and sets up an almost Kafka like scene of a writer whose wife has disappeared, left to contemplate the meaning of freedom versus enslavement:

While I was fighting, I heard other people speaking in the name of freedom, and the more they defended this unique right, the more enslaved they seemed to their parents’ wishes, to the person ‘for the rest of their lives’, to the bathroom scales, to their diet, to half-finished projects, to lovers to whom they were incapable of saying “No’ or “It’s over’, to weekends when they were obliged to have lunch with people they didn’t even like. (71)

Many of the authors chose to write about accidents; a moment of change and the impact it has on relationships, and the notion of the “self.” Coetzee’s “Slow Man” goes into the mind of a man whose leg is crushed and his resultant convalescence. The language is Coetzee’s usual clear logic, but coupled with the pain and chaos of the accident provides a powerful look at change:

The nights are endless. He is too hot, he is too cold; the leg closed in its swaddling, itches and cannot be reached. If he holds his breath he can hear the ghostly creeping of his assaulted flesh as it tries to knit itself together again. Outside the sealed window a cricket chants to itself. When sleep comes it is sudden and brief, as if gusts of leftover anaesthetic were coming up from his lungs to overwhelm him.(84)

Similarly, Nicholas Evans’ “The Divide” tracks the progression of a father and son’s ski accident, from anticipation to the aftermath, using a combination of fast action and slow description to distort time as the accident changes everything for the pair:

The walls of the hole in which they sat were layered with shelves of buish white ice, which their two falls had shattered. It was like being in the cross section of some giant frosted wasp nest. The floor felt firm and when the boy brushed away the snow he saw that they were on solid ice. (104)

A few of the pieces will appeal to genre readers, such as Harlan Coben’s thriller “The Innocent” which is compelling enough, but clearly genre driven or Joanna Trollop’s “Second Honeymoon,” which traces in a fairly predicable way, the impact of “empty nest” syndrome on a mother. Stephen King, on the other hand, makes a departure from his usual horror with a character driven piece that takes a wife’s point of view as her famous writer husband is shot in “Lisey’s Story.” There are so many possible directions for this work that the reader is left guessing at the turns it might take and which element may take priority as the story progresses past the paces.

Not everything here will appeal to everyone. Vikram Seth’s poem, “Earth and Sky” is more cute than profound, with its rhyming couplets and puns, but will appeal to those who prefer poetry with traditional forms. But most of the work is easy to read, and full of possibility which will tantalise and entice readers. All up, this is a varied and fascinating collection, with something for everyone. The clear bent is literary fiction however, and that makes this, in the main, a moving collection full of provocative and evocative work from some of the most well known and respected writers working today. This is a wonderful marketing idea, and one which makes much more sense than those little booklets that publishers are leaving in bookshops. After reading these tantelising beginnings, readers will no doubt be convinced to buy the novels that these chapters prefigure. That the money is going to a very serious and worthwhile charity is cream on the cake. Buy it for the work, and feel good in knowing that your money is going to those who are very much in need. May this project auger many more of its kind, providing a win-win for authors, publishers, and readers alike. An ongoing record of the money raised and the charities which received it can be found at www.bloomsbury.com/tsunami