I’ve always been partial to stories where the setting is a central character. Hermione Hoby’s debut Neon in Daylight does just that with New York City, and fortunately, she’s done it well. Set in the summer of 2012 during an unbearable heat wave, Hoby’s British protagonist Kate has fled her London life — boyfriend and PhD. included — to cat-sit for a friend in the heart of New York. Other than the cat, Kate has no obligations or plans.
I’m not the biggest fan of NYC, yet Hoby’s prose paints the spirit of the city without romance or praise. It breathes and moves on the page, but it doesn’t demand anything. Around every corner is a new discovery for Kate, and on every rooftop a view that doesn’t draw attention to itself. These monologues are some of the most radical and arresting moments of the novel.
On her first day, Kate encounters a barefoot, strikingly beautiful girl in a bodega. And though New York City has a seemingly infinite population, it’s only a matter of weeks before she runs into the teen again in the park, and they strike up an unconventional friendship. Inez, the ripped-clothes-only daughter of an author whose sole novel was made into a movie whose star actor died, smokes and curses with the carefree nature of a rebellious youth. She is Kate’s opposite, challenging her every blush with an unapologetic comment about her discomfort. She comes and goes with radiant ease.
Not long after, Kate also falls into infatuation with Bill, an older man she meets at a gallery opening. She doesn’t know it yet, but Bill is Inez’s father. The reader figures the connection out as the chapters jump from each of the three characters as they go about their lives. Bill occupies the one-off writer stereotype, trying harder than necessary to be the “cool dad.” Inez flits from one date to another, eventually scrolling through the pervert requests on Craigslist and responding and fulfilling their fantasies. Together, the three of them unveil New York and its intimate inner workings.
Where the structure of the narrative feels predictable at times, it’s the observations from our outsider protagonist that livens up the prose. Kate is enthralled by the city and her companions equally, frequently braving the oppressive heat of the summer to explore parks and bodegas and museums with no preconceived expectations. Inez and Bill fit their molds a bit too nicely at times, leaving behind cliché impressions. But it’s Kate that breaks all of the molds, especially when she chops off all of her hair and dyes it neon blonde, does drugs with Inez for the first time, and goes to a strip club with Bill on their second date.
When the inevitable familial connection is revealed, the plot surprises with a deft sidestepping of confrontation. Kate’s directionless path isn’t solved or neatly laid out before her. Instead, she continues to attend events and parties, letting things happen as they will, along for the ride. The city remains constant, and Bill and Inez also go unchanged from beginning to end, but Kate is a kaleidoscope of evolution, seemingly making choices with no motivation other than it’s not what she would’ve done in the past.
The book opens with a holiday: the Fourth of July, and ends with one, too: Halloween. Between these bookends, cocktails are made, outrageous outfits are bought, and illicit sexual favors are doled out. As Kate wanders the city and ping-pongs between Inez and Bill’s circles, the novel comes to a climax that brings no resolution. And yet, it’s an ending that fits: vigorous and dynamic, albeit off-balance. Neon in Daylight is Hermione Hoby’s debut novel, and her skill on the sentence level — along with a keen eye for detail — will catapult her to stardom.
FICTION – LITERARY
Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby
Published January 9, 2017
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You must be joking.