There’s good news and there’s bad news with this, the debut novel from Neil Ayres.
The bad news is that Nicolo’s Gifts is both too long and too short.
Too long? The first three and a half chapters are slow going, and the prose feels stilted and artificial at times – it’s oddly reminiscent in this respect of early JG Ballard. And, while relevant, the first story within the story is too long, and in coming so soon after the difficult early chapters, threatens to divert attention away from the developing story thread – potentially catastrophic for readers who may have been struggling up to this point. These first few chapters and the story within the story could have benefited from some sharp editing.
Too short? There are some interesting people in Nicolo’s Gifts, but some of them felt underdeveloped. No, they’re not cardboard cut-outs, on the contrary, these are real people, and well drawn – Ayres is a natural at the understated character study (which happens to be in the first and third person present tense, together with third person past tense – an excellent strategy, because it keeps the reader unsettled) – but I had that feeling one gets at a party when the person who is just getting interesting calls a cab and leaves. I just wanted to get to know some of them better.
The good news. A transition occurs in the fourth chapter of Nicolo’s Gifts, when Ayres finds his rhythm and his voice, and the book becomes simultaneously easier to read and far more interesting. To say that I devoured the book from this point in one sitting would be to exaggerate only slightly – I had to rise from my Landaise armchair several times to recharge my glass with a robust Bordeaux. By the end of my evening a host of characters had converged, diverged and changed. All had lived, some had loved and some had died. Tears were shed – and not just by characters in the book. Wine notwithstanding, the final few pages of Nicolo’s Gifts moved me in such a way that only a few other books ever have.
Nicolo’s Gifts is difficult to categorise, occasionally frustrating, requires your full attention and is intellectually and emotionally demanding. Because of these factors, it may struggle to find a wide audience. I suspect that this will not bother Neil Ayres too much, nor should it. Despite its flaws, Nicolo’s Gifts is a deeply memorable read, and an impressive debut from a writer I hope to savour again.