Few things in the literary world are more exciting than a hot first novel by a debut author.
By David Adams
Whether it’s the thrill of the unknown or the charge we get from knowing that a writer has made her dreams come true, book lovers are drawn to new voices like moths to a flame. From a comic romp across 60 years of American history to a twisted thriller inspired by Greek mythology, we’re celebrating the best and brightest debut novels of the past three years—and hoping that we hear much more from these authors in the years to come.
Captivating, tender-hearted, and exquisitely written, this PEN/Faulkner Award winner might just be the finest account of the 2008 financial crisis in American literature. Jende and Neni Jonga are recent immigrants to New York City from Cameroon; their fortunes seem to take a decisive turn for the better when Jende lands a job driving for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. But fate—and the debt-riddled housing market—have other plans. Debut author Imbolo Mbue moves seamlessly between big-picture social issues and the small-scale domestic dramas that make her characters, and their increasingly dire circumstances, feel so real.
In the span of two short years, 28-year-old Sally Rooney has gone from anonymous Irish graduate student to “Voice of a Generation.” Her sudden fame is a direct byproduct of her ability to portray her fellow millennials and their romantic entanglements with captivating precision. In Rooney’s knockout debut, Frances and Bobbi—best friends and former lovers—meet a glamorous older photographer and her actor husband. Joy, jealousy, heartbreak, and self-realization ensue, but not necessarily in that order, and not without running commentary by the hyperarticulate Frances, a character so alive she leaps off the page directly into your heart.
Six years ago, Alicia Berenson, a successful painter, shot her fashion photographer husband five times in the face, killing him. She hasn’t spoken a word since, but that’s about to change—or so her new therapist, Theo Farber, hopes. Newly arrived at the secure facility where Alicia is being held, Theo quickly sets out to gain her trust. But how do you communicate with silence? And if Alicia ever decides to talk again, what horrors will she reveal? Brilliantly plotted and audaciously inventive, it’s no wonder this debut novel inspired by the Greek myth of Alcestis hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and is currently in development by Brad Pitt’s production company.
From its devastating prologue to its shocking conclusion, The Dry—much like the years-long drought afflicting the Australian town where the story is set—never lets up. Decades after leaving Kiewarra in disgrace, Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns for the funerals of his childhood best friend, Luke, and Luke’s wife and son. The locals are sure it was a murder-suicide, but Falk sees connections to a mystery from his and Luke’s past. Former journalist Jane Harper drops clever clues on nearly every page of her blockbuster crime novel, which will soon be a film from the producer behind Big Little Lies and Gone Girl.
Somehow it feels like cheating to call this #1 New York Times bestseller—37 weeks and counting—a debut. But the facts speak for themselves: Delia Owens, a zoologist and co-author of three books about Africa, had never published a work of fiction until this incredible story of a girl surviving on her own in the marshlands of coastal North Carolina. Thirteen years after she took to the wilderness, Kya Clark is arrested for murder. At the ensuing trial, she must defend not just her innocence, but her way of life. A gripping murder mystery wrapped in a lyrical meditation on the beauty and meaning of nature, this is the rare novel that everyone can love.
For a novel so focused on the past, The Girls has proven to be remarkably prescient. By reimagining the Tate-LaBianca murders as a coming-of-age story about a teenager’s obsession with an older cult member, Emma Cline discovered a new, more humane, way of looking at one of the 20th century’s most notorious crimes. Now, as the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family’s killing spree approaches, acclaimed filmmakers Mary Harron (“Charlie Says”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) are following in Cline’s footsteps by focusing their hotly-anticipated new movies not on the cult leader himself, but on people—real and imagined—whose lives intersected with his.
Like the best of John Le Carré and Alan Furst, this debut combines the excitement of an espionage thriller with the emotional complexity of a literary novel. Offered a plum overseas assignment, FBI agent Marie Mitchell jumps at the chance to kick start her career. But her mission—to seduce and help to overthrow Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso—is deeply unsettling. And that’s before she finds herself falling for her target. Mixing humor, adventure, Cold War politics, romance, and family drama, American Spy is the kind of genre-busting novel that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Come for the startling turns-of-phrase and vivid descriptions of Minnesota’s northern woods, stay for the spine-tingling suspense. We know from the second paragraph of this Booker Prize finalist that a young boy is dead. The question is: What responsibility does his 14-year-old babysitter bear? When a young mother and her son move into a new cabin across the lake, shy and awkward Linda is quickly drawn into their orbit, not recognizing the danger signs. Few veteran authors—T. C. Boyle and Lionel Shriver come to mind—can strike the delicate balance between eloquence and tension that Emily Fridlund achieves in her debut.
From Norwegian folklore to the 1968 Democratic National Convention to online gaming and Occupy Wall Street, The Nix switches topics like a rush-hour commuter switches lanes. But at its heart, this brilliant debut is the story of a boy abandoned by his mother. Decades after she disappeared, Samuel Andresen-Anderson’s mom is arrested for hurling rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate. Is she really the radical leftist the media makes her out to be? Samuel is determined to find out—his floundering writing career depends on it. Readers will be reminded of John Irving, Michael Chabon, and David Foster Wallace, but Hill has style and substance all his own.
If you’ve read anything about this whip-smart debut novel, you know that one of the main characters closely resembles Philip Roth, and that author Lisa Halliday had a relationship with Roth when she was in her 20s and he in his late 60s. But Asymmetry is much more than a thinly disguised tell-all about the sex life of a literary genius. It’s also a portrait of a young artist coming into her own and, in its moving second section, a lucid and compelling depiction of the traumas of the Iraq War. When viewed in the right light, the novel’s two seemingly disparate halves—titled “Folly” and “Madness”—reveal themselves to be perfectly conjoined puzzle pieces.
Taking its title from Gertrude Stein’s comment that the Oakland she remembered from her childhood is gone forever (“There is no there there”), this sparkling literary debut follows 12 “Urban Indians” as they make their way toward the city’s annual powwow. For some, the event is a chance to reconnect with tribal traditions; for others, it forces a reckoning with an identity that has never truly felt like their own. Oakland native Tommy Orange paints his city and his characters with an indelible brush, collapsing the boundaries—between rural and urban, past and present, mythical and real—that have typically defined Native American literature.