Dead Ernest is the latest publication (out tomorrow, officially) from Macmillan New Writing (MNW).
MNW opened for business last year. Publishing at the rate of one book a month, the imprint deals only in first novels by previously unpublished authors. MNW will take any genre.
Dead Ernest is, I think, the best of the bunch so far. True, I enjoyed Homunculus very much (and for more about that, please tune in tomorrow), and, in today's market, Homunculus is the more obviously commercial book. However, in its own quiet way Dead Ernest is remarkably well written, well constructed, and with a bit of luck could be a little bit like A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian (a book which, by the way, just goes on selling and selling; over a million now, worldwide).
In a way, it's a pity I had to mention Homunculus at all, because the two books are totally different. But perhaps that very difference is usefully illuminating. Homunculus is a pretty brutal, political, in-your-face piece of scifi/fantasy/satire. Its readers will be blokes, young, good on computers and fond of a pint.
Dead Ernest, on the other hand, is non-sensational, domestic, lower middle class, English, and sensitive; and its readership will be almost entirely female, mature to elderly, married, and fond of a nice cup of tea.
Frances Garrood is, I suspect, somewhat akin to her target audience. Her main career was in nursing, and she has four children and five grandchildren. In her spare time, she published many short stories; although her web site biography doesn't say so, I imagine that these appeared in various women's magazines.
In short, Frances has lived a full life and has served a writing apprenticeship. All of this shows, in abundance, when you start to read Dead Ernest.
I have developed a crude rule of thumb these days. Turn to the back of the book, note the number of the last chapter, and the total number of pages. Do the arithmetic and work out the average length of a chapter. If the answer is 10 pages or below, you're probably going to be OK -- well, I am, anyway. If the answer is 35, one's heart sinks.
Here the average chapter is just under 6 pages long. Indeed the prologue is about two thirds of a single page, and it sets the scene perfectly. Chapter 1 confirms the impression that we are in safe hands, and so it goes on.
I am reluctant to talk too much about the plot; I always think that plot summaries, particularly on the backs of books, are enough to put people off reading for life. But basically what we have here is the story of a very unhappy marriage, told after the death of the husband (Ernest, he dead), and seen from the viewpoint of Annie, the wife.
We also have the local Vicar, a married man who becomes a friend of Annie's after Ernest's departure, and Annie's granddaughter Ophelia. The Vicar and Ophelia fall in love and have to decide what to do about it.
Structurally the book is carefully constructed. In order to tell the tale, a certain number of flashbacks are required. This is often the kiss of death, but Frances Garrood has acquired the narrative skill to pull it off rather well. There are one or two points where the use of viewpoint jarred me a bit (it's a point on which I am unusually sensitive), but otherwise not a foot is put wrong.
Essentially, the material for this novel is dark, sometimes sordid, and potentially tragic. However, Frances Garrood has judged her presentation of it remarkably well. She strikes just the right note: she doesn't beat us over the head with the horror of the nasty bits, and adds just a touch of humour here and there without minimising the characters' pain.
I feel confident that a large number of women readers are going to enjoy this book very much. It is not, perhaps, the kind of thing that gets chosen for reading groups (they tend to be awfully earnest, with an a) but it's the sort of book which might be read aloud on Woman's Hour (if they do that any more; and if, indeed, there is still a Woman's Hour; perhaps Mr Blair has banned it, on grounds of discrimination; perhaps it's The Hour For Anyone Who Happens To Be Listening).
Anyway, if the MNW publicists can find a way to alert the right readership, this will take off. Word of mouth is the thing, and, if nothing else, the ladies who read this kind of book do know how to talk.
I don't know enough about the mainstream Macmillan list to know whether Frances Garrood fits in well with the current ethos there or not. But if Macmillan don't offer her a two or three-book contract, someone else surely will.