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4.1 out of 5 stars
First Novel
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2013
The novel opens with a scene in which the main character of the book, Paul Kinder, parses his Kindle to pieces, and then just throws it away. Paul is obsessed with debut novel, especially those that are out of print or whose authors no longer even mention their first books. Paul is an author of a novel published by a small press, and now it's almost impossible to find copies of his book. He lives alone in Manchester and teaches creative writing at the University, leading the the First Novel course. Paul is unsociable and most people he remembers only for their identifying signs: Overcoat Man, Dog Man, Umbrella Lady, etc. Paul spends his spare time in the garden, touches his collection of paperback books, as well as looks in second-hand stores for rare books.

In the beginning of the book one of Paul's students named Grace refers to the teacher with a problem: she can not find all the books from the list of recommended reading, and Paul gives her his number, so that later they could meet and he lent her a copy. On the same day, when Paul takes a walk in the park, he finds the body of Overcoat Man. Paul scours body, wearing gloves, but in the pockets finds only five pounds bill. Paul goes on in the evening barbecue to his friends, AJ and Carol.
There, he meets his pal Lewis. One of the guests mentions that Paul is a writer, but he says that he only writes about restaurants and books and does not mention novels. Both Paul and Lewis recently moved to Manchester, although once grew up here. AJ and Carol live near the airport, and the conversation inevitably comes to the fact that in this area there are many pilots. Paul writes his second novel about the pilots and collects material for it.

The story told in the first person is punctuated with excerpts from a novel, but whose novel is this - it will become clear only at the end of the book.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle is not Royle's first novel, the title shouldn't mislead you. Royle is a master of strange prose, prose of dream and macabre (I've read in the past year two of his stories, and I still remember I did not understand half of them). This novel is a delightful dizziness while being exercise in style. After reading the book once, you could not understand everything that was happening in the book. First Novel requires focus and concentration, it's not the book you will read in a one sitting. I read the book twice, but I'm sure that some of the plot twists and turns are still left hidden from me.

The book combined several techniques of writing. The beginning of the novel is almost plotless fiction written in first person, largely autobiographical (Royle himself is obsessed with debut novels). Later in the book the writer inserts fragments of the novel, which later transformed into an independent story - a family chronicle. The author then begins to shift the narrative lens, and strangeness, mismatches, overlaies appears. Deeper into the novel Royle already writes dreamlike prose, where it is difficult to understand who is alive and who is not, who is real and who is not, who is the hero of the novel, and who is the hero of the novel inside the novel. The end is experimental, written in the future tense, where the protagonist is at a crossroads. He either is delusional, or dreams, or just trying to forget. Each technique is used for a reason, and works on a whole story. A fragment of the novel becomes the past, present is questionable, fictional characters are indistinguishable from nonfictional. This is one of those books where you have to question not only what the narrator said, but everything else as well.

However by the finale pieces of the puzzle are beginning to take shape, and the ending is truly a strange and shocking, sophisticated and unpleasant. Nobody will get what he wanted. No one will be happy, because how can there be happiness in such a distorted world.

Subplot (also a novel in the novel) about the pilot Raymond Cross is less spectacular, it is more typical. However, this can be attributed to the fact that this is a novel written by a student, and how expect the perfection from a person who is just learning.

The book, of course, is not just an exercise in style. Royle raises subjects of choice and parental responsibility for the fate of children, generously sprinkles them with black humor and twists the plot as anyone rarely can.

This book is a mature and unusual, and certainly not for everyone.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
First Novel is very intriguing right from the start. Paul Kinder runs a creative writing course on "First Novels". He is obsessed by his subject and collects first novels of other writers. He has a first novel of his own but no-one has read it and it is no longer in print. He peruses (more obsessive behaviour) the newspaper series on writers' rooms and studies their furniture after first checking to see if his book is on any of their bookshelves. He even imagines being in Paul Auster's apartment in New York and chatting to Auster's wife Siri Hustedt.

The book is interspersed with excerpts of novels in progress of his students - some of which are really fascinating.

But as well as being a book about writing and writers it is also about obsession, paranoia, jealousy and murder - and aeroplanes. It all becomes so involved that by the end I was unsure which narratives were supposed to be in the real world and which were part of someone's imagination. The ending is very unsettling and at one point I almost stopped reading.

Very well written - but a book to admire rather than enjoy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 26 October 2014
The final section of this intriguing novel opens with a quote from Borges – ‘...things only happen in the present’ – and one of my favourite aspects of the book is the way the timelines, that portray events past and present, are blended together. The different strands of the story initially appear disconnected but, through several surprising and entertaining twists, the threads converge so that we see, in the end, it is all one narrative – a narrative that we eventually find has all happened in the present.

One of the other reviewers here says, ‘read it, and then go back and read it again’. That summed up my own feeling perfectly when I finished the book a couple of days ago. And I haven’t stopped piecing it all together since - wondering what I might have missed along the way.

If you like a book that combines the literary and the popular, this is for you. If you like a novel with a layered plot that twists and surprises and keeps you thinking through to the end, this is for you. And if you’ve ever dabbled in the world of creative writing, this is also for you.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Nicholas Royle's novel was recommended to me by several people. It's the first of his novels I have read and what an introduction to his writing it has proved to be.

It begins in a deceptively simple fashion. The narrator's story is that of a middle aged single man with a slightly jaded and world weary perspective. The narrative then splits and we read excerpts from Grace's novel in progress (Grace being one of his students). This too is effectively written, and I found myself equally drawn into this `story in a story'.

Without wishing to reveal too much, the absolute skill of the novel is the way it subverts expectations as it interweaves the novel's narratives into an enjoyably twisted tangle of a plot which left me quite astounded. I finished reading it last night and I am left in the rare and enjoyable position of having to go back and start reading it all over again, now I know what I know at the end.

The narratives are skilfully woven into an absolute delight of a novel. His prose is simple, clear and effective. He clearly trusts his readers to go along with him for the ride and what a ride it is. I wholeheartedly recommend this `not-his-first' novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2015
As always with the fiction of Nicholas Royle there is far more going on than first appears. This is a remarkable novel, filled with interesting characters and an intruiging, unsettling plot. I don't want to say any more than that for fear of spoiling the whole thing, and it's best to come at it blind anyway. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 February 2014
I read First Novel when it was in hardback. Nicholas Royle has written seven books and is also an editor of short fiction and is a publisher. His work is very highly regarded and this novel illustrates why.
This is a mystery novel and the protagonist is a creative writing teacher (as Nicholas Royle is as well) and also features two of his students. The teacher is trying to get his book written, but the work of his students is blended in with the narrative. I'm not going to spoil the plot for you, only to say the last half of the novel is astounding, as the various plots and storylines begin to make sense. A true mystery novel, where the questions raised can often have an either/or answer.
Well worth buying, a superb book!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 February 2013
Other reviewers have written about the premise of this novel - a creative writing teacher and his own and his students' novels unfolding within the overall novel. The interweaving of the various narratives is very very clever, in my view, because you can't always see the join, to the extent that I'm not even sure that the major newspaper reviewers have unravelled just how many stories are going on in there. If the purpose of this novel is to push against existing boundaries and to show just how fluid a medium the novel can be, then I think it succeeds magnificently. It's not just the individual stories that shift, but the prose and style along with them; so an attentive reader - on the famous second reading - can tease out the narrators hiding in the shadows. Of course I might just have got it all wrong... But even so, I think this book deserves a lot more attention than it seems to be getting at the moment, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it does go on to win prizes. I certainly hope so.First Novel
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
...but I couldn't put it down. Is that a good or a bad thing? It either is or it isn't.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 February 2013
"Either you'll get it , or you won't" it says on the inside cover, and after reading the first few pages of the dead-pan, first person narrator's account of taking a Kindle to pieces, I wasn't sure that I would last the course. Then looking through his window he sees a possible murder take place, yet continues to look as time passes, the sky turns a deeper blue, and either you are intrigued by his detachment, or you aren't. Is it all too clever-clever? Well I held on, and was gripped by the unfolding story of this creative writing teacher's (Paul's) life, and also by the parallel story written by one of his students. He meets and becomes reluctantly involved with a man whose life seems to have uncanny resemblances to his own. Paul has sex in cars, and has an obsessive interest in obscure first novels. He spends hours browsing The Guardian's 'Writer's Rooms' series, noting the furniture in the authors' studies, hoping to see his own first novel on their bookshelves. There is much about the writer's life that is humourously or darkly subversive here. He seems to have a real thing about Siri Hustvedt.

Although this narrator doesn't make efforts to try to make you like him, he plays with, and challenges the reader more than once, it isn't difficult to follow the different strands. The sense of anguish is real. The fictional and real elements do connect in the end, and this reader was left suitably stirred and intrigued to re-read a few earlier scenes. You may feel a bit toyed with, and either you'll like it or you won't. I rather did.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 April 2013
Paul, the narrator of Royle's latest novel is surprisingly entertaining considering he's rather odd and lacking in emotion, and is obsessed with detail and aviation. That's because he is written so well - spare and to the point, and with humour. As the novel progresses we get a sense that things are not quite as they appear to be, helped by the seemingly random subplot about RAF pilots stationed in Zanzibar.

I read this book very quickly as I was intrigued by Paul's complex character (whose tight control of himself starts to unravel as his past and present stories collide), but also because there were so many twists and turns and questions about identity, storytelling and character. it's a complex book, but written in a simple lively fashion that draws the reader in and keeps him/her coming back. Moments of confusion didn't matter, because the reading experience was so satisfying.

Now that I've reached the end, I want to go back and read it all over again, to reenter the world that Royle has created, but also to try to unpick the subplots and understand how everything links. It is a skilled book, intelligent and daring, one of a kind.
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