Howard McNamee, the Glaswegian protagonist of The Truth About These Strange Times by Adam Foulds (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), is 28, overweight and a towel collector in a gym. Until his mother’s recent death, he lived with her and now returns home each night to talk to her, addressing the clothes hanging in her wardrobe.
After a kind old lady called Mrs Dawson collapses at his gym, Howard visits her in hospital, telling the stories he is afraid to tell his mother, even via the wardrobe. When Mrs Dawson dies, too, he appears more affected than her own son, Les. But Les takes Howard under his wing, thrusting him into a distinctly unusual family.
Mrs Dawson’s grandson Saul is 10, and the sole focus of his father’s attention as he prepares the boy for the World Memory Championships. Saul, who can recite pi to a thousand decimal places, and has word-perfect recall for every conversation, “worked without anyone’s pity, or only Howard’s…”
Howard exposes Saul to the world’s pleasures, much to Les’s disapproval. As the competition nears and Saul is visibly affected by the pressure, Howard takes the boy away from his father’s impossible expectations.
Foulds, recently named as Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, has a fine turn of phrase, and the relationship between Howard and Saul is depicted without sentimentality (though Saul does sometimes come across as a Central Casting “gifted child”).
Foulds’s own gifts may be gauged from the fact that he now has a second, lauded offering, The Broken Word (Cape, £9), a 60-page narrative poem about random brutality and systematic violence in 1950s colonial Kenya.