musings

Thoughts on reading debuts

Does anyone have any thoughts on the expectations that surround debut work at the moment?

I’m currently reading Sarah Perry’s’ After Me Comes The Flood, published in 2014. Like many readers, this book has come to my attention since reading her stellar 2016 novel The Essex Serpent.

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Reading such an array of mixed reviews about After Me Comes The Flood filled me with what I can best describe as a kind of anxiety about it. Many of the more negative reviews centred on disappointment, the most common being (to paraphrase), ‘It just wasn’t as good as The Essex Serpent’.

I think what really struck me about this situation is that I’m so used to seeing or experiencing the reverse: a standout debut can raise expectations for an author’s subsequent work. A book can enter the arena at exactly the right time, supported by a publishing team who have (as much as possible) understood and prepared for that, and reach dizzying heights of popularity. Seeing stunning marketing and campaigns for debuts is so joyous because authors will really benefit from such dedicated enthusiasm that has in the past seemed to be reserved for established best-sellers.

It’s not difficult, on seeing all this, for readers to overlook how saturated the book market is and how quickly it changes. If ‘Book 2’ doesn’t quite hit the mark for them, some readers feel disappointed.

With Sarah Perry’s work, her second novel was so hugely successful (it continued to sell really well at the bookshop I worked in over Christmas) that readers seem surprised that they don’t enjoy her first. After Me Comes The Flood had also been awarded a prize, albeit without the widespread publicity of being named ‘Waterstones Book of the Year’. For many, it had gone under the radar until The Essex Serpent filled almost every bookshop window or supermarket shelf one passed.

I’ll admit, the dissatisfied reviews did affect my motivation to pick up a copy of the book, even though every time I read the blurb, I was intrigued. It’s easy to get sucked into this wariness about one book or another when you see so many similar comments about it. It’s much simpler to assume you will have the same opinions about a book than take the time to read it for yourself, especially as we are always overwhelmed with other choices.

On top of that, when a book captures your imagination so intensely, as The Essex Serpent did with me, you’re almost protective of it and the author, and the thought of anything disrupting your positivity towards them is horrifying.

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Highclere Castle provided a stunning backdrop to some reading this bank holiday

Last week, though, I saw a copy of After Me Comes The Flood at the library and decided enough was enough. It was as though a light bulb switched on and I remembered that if I really didn’t take to the book, I could just bring it back and choose another.

Now that I’m reading it, I can say that though I’ve not been wholly enraptured by the narrative (you know when you just cannot put it down?), After Me Comes The Flood is nevertheless an engaging read. Something about the style jars, but it feels deliberate rather than messy: we’re meant to feel unsettled, because the circumstances the main character is confronting are unsettling.

There are echoes of Daphne du Maurier’s writing, specifically her novel The Scapegoat, which has been a lovely and unexpected aspect of the book. Both writers create a chilling sense of atmosphere so effectively by subtly drawing the reader’s attention to things not said, whether by characters or by the narrative itself.

I’m struggling quite a lot to ‘care’ for the characters or what happens to them. Personally, to have the motivation to read on, I need to believe in a character: not necessarily like them, but I have to believe that they would behave in this way in the world they exist in. In After Me Comes The Flood, I’m finding it difficult to get to grips with the characters.

I’m glad that I’m discovering this for myself by reading the book, though. I love being part of the book community because it’s a great way to pick up recommendations or warnings about themes in a book that may upset us, and simply to talk to similarly enthusiastic people about what we’re reading.

In this situation, though, I let reading reviews overtake my reading of the actual book. I forgot the very simple idea that that each book should first be approached on its own merit, as an entirely separate entity from everything that surrounds it, including the author’s previous work. You’re no more guaranteed to love everything an author writes than you are to dislike everything in a genre you‘re not particularly a fan of. While it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between books, I’ll certainly try to bear in mind that they’re not the be all and end all of a book’s reputation, and it’s always worth trying to read a book for myself first.

Has anyone else had any similar experiences with an author’s work and the reviews of them? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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