OK, Mr Field
Ok, Mr Field is Faber’s Lead Debut for 2018 and, in both its publication in June and serialisation in The Paris Review, it represents the emergence of what we might call Faber’s Lead Debutante – young author Katherine Kilalea. While Kilalea has had a poetry collection published in 2009 and has received preliminary attention from the Southbank Centre and the mainstream press for her writing, all eyes are very much upon the young South African with this slim but promising first novel. If it were the Gala Ball, she would be preparing to make her grand entrance down the staircase in all pomp and circumstance. You can practically hear the creak of necks being craned.
Ok, Mr Field is told from the perspective of a pianist who has recently lost his livelihood as the result of an accident. Mr Field moves with his wife to South Africa, to a coastal home outside Cape Town that he has glimpsed in a newspaper and to which he feels inexplicably and inextricably connected. The interior reality that Mr Field and his companions occupy soon begins to unravel as the narrator starts to develop a series of unhealthy and delusional obsessions.
The way that debut novels – particularly by young and/or unknown authors – are publicised and perceived nowadays is important to appreciating OK, Mr Field. There always seems to be a charge of expectation with this kind of literary flavour of novel for a new author to make their first work somehow profound and personally authentic or representative in a kind of semi-auto-bio-bildungsroman-a-clef sort of way – and, above all, to be as innovative as possible. The best thing about Ok, Mr Field is that it doesn’t seem to have that anxiety, or really any other legitimate gripes on a surface level. The least enjoyable parts of the novel are the constipated attempts at humour that tend to be made by books that want, at heart, to be taken seriously – but, happily, these flaws are shallow and the thought behind them goes deep.
Kilalea’s writing manages to touch on the South African setting, the minutiae of daily agonies and the characters that suffer them without really getting under their skin, but nonetheless casts a shadow over everything in its gaze which is chilling enough upon the surface. The book doesn’t overstay its welcome or make any particularly objectionable or outrageous moves. The commendably succinct narrative conveys detail and the act of noticing it through language that seems itself to occupy, in a literal sense, the mind of an otherwise idle narrator. In this, it draws upon Wittgenstein’s Mistress or, more recently, McCormack’s Solar Bones, while managing to be less stylistically exhausting or self-conscious.
Kilalea has created a portrait of atrophy within the vacuum of personal isolation that is intuitively written and extremely readable. It gestures towards profundity without fingering it too explicitly and avoids fetishising its own cleverness in a way that is obviously, and obliquely, much cleverer. Most authors look back in anguish on their debuts in comparison to their later works. Whatever her future career might have in store, this will certainly not prove to be the case for Kilalea.