We’ve seen many impressive debut novels published throughout 2016. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers turned the young author into something of a literary popstar. Dodgers by Bill Beverly won two CWA Dagger awards. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfeg was nominated for the Booker. It seems fitting, then, to round off the year with another extraordinary first novel, Our Magic Hour by Australian writer Jennifer Down.
Published by Text, Our Magic Hour is as much a portrait of grief as it is a coming-of-age tale. The book follows three friends – Audrey, Katy, and Adam – as they share cigarettes, have long heart-to-hearts and partake in drunken misadventures through the backstreets of Melbourne. It starts as a lively story about urban twenty-somethings, until Katy unexpectedly commits suicide, leaving those around her – especially Audrey – to try and cope with their grief. In the aftermath of Katy’s death we see Audrey struggling to hold both herself and her dysfunctional family together while dealing with difficult situations in her job as a social worker. Her sadness is honest and powerful, much like the novel itself.
It’s a simple plot, and one that has been explored in fiction many times. But what sets Our Magic Hour far apart is the way Downs tells her story. The novel is incredibly evocative, so much so that one Goodreads reviewer wrote: “there were times I had to remind myself I was reading and not reliving.” Down’s prose is restrained and exquisitely written; the book’s emotional punch is insidious. Even without having experienced a loss of this kind, readers will find the themes in the novel universal; this is a book about what it feels like to be young and invincible, and what happens when a single act changes that.
The Melbourne depicted in Our Magic Hour is full of spirit, seeming to prop up the characters at times. As the Melbourne Weekly Review writes, the book is “A vivid portrait of our city and its inhabitants.” Sections of the book are also set in Sydney; the two cities are as diverse and different in character as the characters themselves. With many in the UK having strong ties to Australia, Down’s settings will be familiar and inviting.
Ultimately, it is the uniqueness of Down’s storytelling that makes Our Magic Hour a standout debut title. It has been called “Striking, breathlessly written… An eloquent debut” by WA Today, and “Easily one of the best Australian debuts I’ve read in a long time” by Lip Mag. The Canberra Weekly called it “A gritty, evocative story… Unconventional and intimate”, while Farrago called it “Surprising and captivating.” We can expect Our Magic Hour to gather the same level of press in the UK, and readers to be thrilled by its originality when it is published on the 29th.
Our Magic Hour is published by Text Publishing on 29th December 2016
(£10.99, p/b, 304pp, 9781925240832)