First Novel by Nicholas Royle

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First Novel

Five words from the blurb: creative, writing, mystery, blend, fact

First Novel is an original, experimental piece of meta-fiction. The central character teaches creative writing at a university in Manchester and has an obsession with first novels. The book is packed with literary references, but these are the only things in the book that are reliable. Everything else is ambiguous, leaving the reader to puzzle over events.

I normally love meta fiction, but for some reason First Novel didn’t work for me – I thought it was trying too hard to be clever. Lots of people love it, but I found it detached. The ambiguous writing style also annoyed me and I began to crave some actual facts:

In the morning I walk down the dismantled railway line as far as the bottom of Burnage Lane, where I stop and listen to the sound of my own breathing. I face a choice. Either I go left up Didsbury Road and catch a bus to Stockport in order to pick up the car, or I go straight on through the little tunnel and then down to the river and Overcoat Man. Either or.

It felt like a creative writing exercise, but perhaps it is supposed to come across that way and I just missed the satire? The majority of other reviews praise the shocking plot twist, but I’m afraid I wasn’t connected enough to the characters to care and so took the twist as just another example of the writer trying too hard.

On a positive note, I loved the way Manchester was portrayed in the book. I have been to some of the areas and it was lovely to see so many familiar streets on paper.

In the past I have struggled with other experimental novels (for example, The Rehearsal by  Eleanor Catton and Light Boxes by Shane Jones), but if you enjoy books that push the boundaries in this way then I think you’ll love First Novel. Many people are predicting this book will be longlisted for the Booker Prize. I think they’re probably right – it takes a special book to annoy me, but still make me want to read to the end!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…this is a progressive, intensely contemporary, brilliant work which challenges the easy certainties of the traditional novel. Words of Mercury

 If the writing assignment was to use all the most interesting techniques of postmodernism to create an intellectually stimulating, funny, serious and clever novel, Nicholas Royle has more than made the grade. Slightly Bookist

The real majesty comes from the construction of the novel and how easy it is to read despite the origami-like concepts. Dog Ear Discs

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  1. I fear that I may well have the same reaction as you – but I think I will have to read this one to find it out for myself!

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, It is a great talking point, so at least you’ll be able to join in the debate once you’ve read it. I look forward to seeing which side of the fence you’ll fall!

  2. David says:

    Agh, only three stars? I thought it was brilliant and could hardly put it down (even though it took me a couple of months to get around to it – all that talk of ‘dogging’ in the blurb put me off!). Yes, it was knowingly “clever” but I loved the puzzle aspect of it (for ages I was wondering who was writing what, given that right at the start Paul gives his students that exercise where they have to write a situation they’ve been involved in from the point of view of someone else who was there), and I also thought it balanced that cleverness with real heart and tenderness (in the story of Ray and Nicholas). And I loved how the ending (though possibly far-fetched) held together and made sense and pulled it back from the metafiction.
    Like you I enjoyed the references to locations around Manchester and Stockport, and especially the stuff about Hyde in Ray’s story.
    I had heard before reading the book that Dr. Shipman featured in it, and I’ll admit I was worried how that would be handled (my great grandfather and one of my Gran’s friends were among his ‘victims’) but Royle wisely has one of the writing students voice exactly those concerns, and I thought it worked really well as part of the story.
    Typically I don’t like experimental novels – I often find them cold, but the fact this one was so grounded in the characters made it work for me. I’d love to see this Booker-longlisted in a few months.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Interestingly I couldn’t put it down either! I read it in a few sittings over a couple of days. Reading it was one of those very strange experiences where the more I read, the more I became annoyed by various aspects of the book. (For example that” Ksssh-huh-huh” laugh and the continual Or did I? questions) ) I’m beginning to realise that this is a sign of quality (boring books lack that spark to move the reader emotionally at all)

      I also knew that Shipman made an appearance and agree that scene was handled well.

      I predict you (and Royle) will be happy when the longlist is announced!

      1. David says:

        Ha, I know what you mean about the “ksssh-huh-huh”! I kept thinking that, yes, I know Lewis is supposed to be irritating, but did Royle have to make him so distractingly irritating? But then of course, you get to the end and you realise how perfectly designed even that laugh was.

        Oh, and did you go looking through the Writer’s Rooms photos on the Guardian website to see what the chairs and desks were like? Or was that just me?

        1. Jackie says:

          David, I’ve seen the Writer’s Room photos before, but didn’t go back and look at them whilst reading the book. I don’t think it is weird to do so though!

  3. stujallen says:

    This one seems one I wouldn’t like I also like meta fiction but something in other review of this book make me wonder if this has been over worked given he is an editor and maybe its been editored to far ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I can actually see you liking this one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it :-)

  4. Hannah says:

    I’m intrigued by this one, it sounds a little like one of my favourite books – Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson ( I think I will approach it with caution though having read this review!

    1. Jackie says:

      Hannah, ‘Emotionally Weird’ sounds like something I’d enjoy more than this – University life is something I like reading about – Thanks for drawing it to my attention!

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