Fiction: Mar 18

Alfred Hickling, Jane Housham and Laura Wilson on The Republic of Trees | Rape: A Love Story | Tsotsi | 26a | The Minotaur

The Republic of Trees, by Sam Taylor, Faber, £7.99

Something very peculiar occurs about two-thirds of the way through Sam Taylor's debut. It begins with all the charming innocence of a Famous Five adventure: Michael and Alex, two pre-teen English brothers living in France, take to the woods with neighbours Louis and Isobel. They fish, climb trees and found a republic. Then they build a guillotine and it all goes a bit Robespierre-shaped. Taylor makes a good point about innocence being a form of blindness, and the early sections dealing with adolescent sexual awakening are exquisitely done. But the transition to terror raises all sorts of questions: who is the sinister interloper named Joy? Is she for real? And why aren't there any concerned adults out looking for them? At one stage Michael theorises: "What if there were two souls in each of us, leading parallel lives, working shifts inside the same head and body? The dayself and the nightself. The sleepself and the wakeself. The dreamself and the realself." It leads you to wonder whether there are actually two writers within Taylor: the goodself and the badself.
Alfred Hickling

Rape: A Love Story, by Joyce Carol Oates, Atlantic, £6.99

You may imagine Niagara Falls to be a kitsch honeymoon hotspot full of fun and romance: Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, conceives it as a morally derelict little backwater full of chemical factories and casual violence. Even the majesty of the falls themselves is reduced to a vertical wall of water "disappearing as if into a giant drain". A woman is brutally gang-raped in a park by a mob of local lowlifes who have been celebrating the Fourth of July by getting high on crystal meth. Oates then details, with almost terrifying objectivity, every aspect of the attack and its aftermath - how it destroys the lives of the victim, her daughter and, perversely, the assailants themselves. Oates's style is so pared down it almost fails to qualify as a style at all, full of blunt, single-clause sentences and jarring repetitions: "Ninth Street was lighted and populated even at this late hour. Rocky Point Park was mostly deserted at this late hour." Yet such uncompromisingly ugly writing perfectly matches an uncompromisingly ugly subject. It's fairly short: but you can really only cope with it in small doses.

Tsotsi, by Athol Fugard, Canongate, £6.99

The South African playwright Athol Fugard wrote this, his only novel, in the early 1960s, only to abandon the manuscript in a suitcase of papers. Rediscovered and published in 1980, it reappears now as a film tie-in. Tsotsi has no name - only his nickname, which means "thug". He doesn't know his own age, has no memory of his past. In his derelict Johannesburg township he lives to kill, randomly and utterly mercilessly, to stave off the terror of his own sense of nothingness. In flight from a fellow gang member who has begun to have pangs of conscience, Tsotsi attempts to rape a woman who thrusts her baby into his arms in order to save herself. Why should he spare the baby, why not snuff out its life as easily as all the rest? The baby stirs memories, unlocks them from the darkness of Tsotsi's cold heart. Tsotsi needs to keep the talismanic child alive in order to connect with his lost past. Extraordinarily powerful yet pulling back from sentimentality, Fugard's vision of a man discovering he has a future by facing up to his past can't fail to have a deeper resonance in its South African context.
Jane Housham

26a, by Diana Evans, Vintage, £6.99

Georgia and Bessi are twins with an English father and a Nigerian mother, but their Nigerian blood runs more powerfully through their veins than the pale English corpuscles. Ida, their mother, who ran away from the family compound to avoid an arranged marriage, still lives there in her imagination, drifting away from her disappointing husband. Up in their loft domain, the little girls solemnly debate the likelihood of a divorce. Nigerian superstitions about the power of twins resonate beneath the surface of this lush Neasden saga: the north London suburb pulses with magical realism as prime minister Gladstone gives the girls lapidary advice from his dream-home in the park. When their father's work takes him back to Nigeria, the whole family is dipped into a hotter, more visceral magic. For Georgia, her brush with threatening power will have lasting consequences for her sense of self. As the girls grow up, planning their Neasden flapjack empire, their twin-ness is eroded by growing differences. Diana Evans uses the saturated colours of myth as a palette with which to paint the inner landscape of mental disturbance.

The Minotaur, by Barbara Vine, Penguin, £6.99

Tense, claustrophobic and slow-burning, Ruth Rendell's 12th novel as Barbara Vine is a wonderful return to form. In 1969, a young Swedish nurse, Kerstin Kvist, arrives at a remote manor house to look after John Cosway, who she is led to believe is schizophrenic and very dangerous if not kept in a chemically induced near-zombie state. The village is caught in a 50s time-warp, Lydstep Old Hall is a rambling pile with mysterious locked rooms, and Kerstin is told that there is madness in the family, which is dominated by a monstrous matriarch whose spinster daughters are firmly under her thumb. So far, so Gothic - especially as Kerstin's impressions of England are formed from Victorian novels - but the gradual laying bare of this dysfunctional family's emotions as she realises that something is very, very wrong is wholly modern. The supporting cast may have their roots in St Mary Mead, but they are brought to life with depth and insight. Powerfully creepy in tone, with secrets buried in a complicity of fear, snobbery and "good manners", The Minotaur is a gripping, expertly plotted and marvellously unsettling read.
Laura Wilson


Alfred Hickling, Jane Housham and Laura Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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