I was lucky enough to meet D.J. Kirkby at a book launch* in May. Since then, I’ve read D.J.’s first book, From Zaftig to Aspie, which is an incredible sensory memoir filled with beautiful descriptions from her extraordinary childhood. We’ll be meeting again at the beginning of October for another book launch in London and this time it’s for her debut novel, Without Alice.
Before I even held a copy of the book in my hand, I wondered who the Alice of the title was and who the someone was that couldn’t be without her and why?
There’s an attractive but wistful-looking young man being hugged by a woman on the book’s cover. So… is the woman on the cover Alice or is he holding someone else while thinking about Alice? Here’s what the blurb has to say on the back of the book:
Have you ever had a secret? One so important that it feels as if it will tear you in two? Stephen’s got one. He’s also got a great job, beautiful wife and an adorable son. Outwardly his life seems perfect but it means nothing without Alice. Read Without Alice and meet a man who you will love to hate until you learn to love him.
Okay, so this establishes that it’s Stephen who can’t manage without Alice but it’s not giving much else away, is it? Especially not about who Alice is or why she’s so important to him. I absolutely had to know the answers but, when I started reading, it quickly became apparent that D.J. Kirkby wasn’t about to tell me anytime soon.
The book starts with a prologue set in July 1977: three seemingly unconnected couples, one of them pregnant; one giving birth and the other ‘enjoying’ early parenthood. After reading it, I just had more questions: who are they? and what do they and their individual stories have to do with each other (if anything)?
Chapter One opens with a birth. Now I had another question: why do people write such graphic birth scenes? (No, I am not a mother. Yes, I am a complete wuss.)
Within a very few pages, I put my initial queasiness and outstanding questions to one side. I was hooked, caught up in people’s lives and sucked into their story, as if I were in the same room and living through it with them in real time. D.J. Kirkby’s writing is extraordinary and dazzling. She works on every one of your senses: the world she creates feels so real that the characters are more like people you know whom you’re eavesdropping.
D.J. does something remarkable in this, her debut novel. She makes her main character intensely unlikeable and sustains this for half the book. That’s difficult for a reader to cope with and potentially disastrous in the hands of the wrong author. But D.J. has a light touch and handles it deftly. I knew from the blurb that I wasn’t supposed to like Stephen initially (“meet a man who you will love to hate until…”) but I was surprised at how strongly I raged against him throughout Part One. But I didn’t throw the book at the wall or stop reading because, not only did I still want to know who Alice was and why she mattered so much to him, but I also had to know why he was behaving in this way to people I liked and sympathised with. There seemed no good reason for it.
D.J. drops the reader hints and clues along the way but she doesn’t fully explain Stephen or his behaviour until Part Two. I had my theories as to what was behind it all and an idea as to who Alice was but I couldn’t put the book down until I had the answers. Then I had to keep reading to find out if and how it would all be resolved.
Without Alice looks at the important relationships in our lives and raises questions about duty, loyalty and love within those same relationships. But, perhaps most interesting of all for this reader, the book forces you to look at how quickly and easily you can form an opinion or reach a conclusion about someone, not knowing all there is to know about them, only to have to later reassess it when you have more information available to you.
Without Alice is an incredibly accomplished debut novel. It’s a story with many strands to it but somehow D.J.Kirkby threads them all seamlessly together to create an enthralling and credible whole. It is a harrowing story, beautifully told, and one which shows the redemptive power of love. She is a gifted storyteller, an exciting writer to watch, and I can’t wait to read what she does next.
I have one copy of the book to give away (UK only). Just leave a ‘Pick Me’ comment below by Friday, 3rd September 2010. You can find details of more competitions to win a copy of Without Alice (one of which ends today and another tomorrow) here.
Without Alice is published by Punked Books and is available exclusively from the Punked Books’ website before it goes on general sale on 4th October 2010, although you can also now buy it from amazon.co.uk. Watch the promotional video for Without Alice or join in the discussion on the Without Alice Facebook page. If you would like to know more about the author, D.J.Kirkby has a Website, and a Blog. You can also Follow D.J. Kirkby on Twitter.