Ones To Watch: Other Debuts To Look Out For

I have a confession to make. When I was a young and foolish Flint, I avoided reading ‘first novels’, unless I’d already read and enjoyed something else by the author. I thought ‘debut novel’ meant ‘raw and unpolished’. That a lack of experience meant the writing would automatically be less accomplished than the author’s later work.

Now I realise how many years of experience go into a first novel. Not just the years it takes to write and edit the book, but the years it takes to build up to starting the book. The life experience it requires. The thousands of books read as the author hones their voice. The writing courses taken, the financial sacrifices made, the sleepless nights endured. The short stories that are written as the author learns his or her craft. The other novels that are begun and abandoned.

Most debut novelists don’t get an agent or a publisher until their first novel is almost complete, so first novels are often written freely, without deadlines. As a result, most debut novels have more time spent on them than later novels.

A first novel is a jewel, polished again and again and again, because the author is always afraid to show it to anyone until it’s perfect.

In praise of debut novels, here’s my list of the ten best ones published in the past twelve months.

If you read another first novel this year, make it one of these jewels.

Joanna Cannon: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

England, 1976. Mrs. Creasy is missing and the Avenue is alive with whispers. The neighbours blame her sudden disappearance on the heat wave, but ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly aren’t convinced and go door to door in search of clues. The cul-de-sac starts to give up its secrets, and the amateur detectives uncover much more than ever imagined. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a complicated history of deception begins to emerge. Everyone on the Avenue has something to hide, a reason for not fitting in.

This is a perfect evocation of a dull stifling English summer in 1970s suburbia. Beautifully written with an absolute mastery of pace: the setting is a dull nondescript housing estate, but the characters are so beguiling that I was completely caught up in the mystery and as desperate to find out the truth as Grace and Tilly themselves.

Emma Cline: The Girls

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong. 

Looking through reviews of The Girls, it seems that this is a book that polarises opinion. I loved it: the seductive drawling prose, the flat sun-dry landscapes, the fictionalisation of a crime that still horrifies and appals almost fifty years later. The main character is unreliable, immature, self-obsessed, cruel – but her anger and resentment and shame burn into the pages and make her real. I have questions about the choices that Cline made about which elements of the Manson crimes to fictionalise, and why she chose a narrator who wasn’t at the scene of the murders – but overall this is a wonderful debut and a brilliant and startling new voice.

Lisa Hall: Between You and Me

Sal and Charlie are married. They love each other, but they aren’t happy. Sal cannot leave, no matter what Charlie does – no matter how much it hurts.

A suspenseful and often very uncomfortable portrait of domestic abuse. I genuinely did not see the twist at the end coming, and when I’d finished it, I had to re-read it with the ending in mind. A great study in how to subvert your audience’s expectations.

Nathan Hill: The Nix

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paint Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help. 

This is one of my two contenders for the best debut I read in 2016. It’s deeply relevant to our social media-obsessed world, and is also breathtaking in its scope and astonishingly accomplished. Hill is being compared to John Irving – and deservedly so. This book will win awards, and Hill will go on to become one of those great American novelists who soar into the bestseller charts and onto college reading lists.

Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is fine. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except sometimes, everything is missing.

A beautiful bittersweet account of a life half-lived. Books very rarely make me laugh out loud – this one had me howling at one page and sobbing at the next. Wonderful.

Joseph Knox: Sirens

Set in a sprawling, twilight northern city, Sirens introduces Aidan Waits, a disgraced young detective caught stealing drugs from evidence and subsequently blackmailed into going undercover. When an MP’s daughter runs away from home, Waits is sent to track her down and finds himself at the centre of a maelstrom of drugs, blackmail and deception.

Uncovering the motives of those involved, he’s thrown forwards through politicians, police and drug lords – towards a conclusion and a truth he really doesn’t want to know. 

This is one of my two picks for best crime debut of the year. It’s a hugely gripping page-turner, well-paced, fast-moving. Knox does not pander to lazy readers: he expects you to keep up with the intricacies of the plot and to remember the twists. If his drunken insomniac narrator can keep up, you damn well can too.

Sirens is a nod to the hardboiled noir of the 1940s, and Knox is already being talked about in the same breath as Chandler – but it’s also written with heart. Aidan Waits is vulnerable and broken and lost: as he hurtles through the midnight streets of the city trying to save the girl, you spend most of the novel rooting for him to save himself.

Anna Mazzola: The Unseeing

Set in London in 1837, this is the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and unmarried mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of Hannah’s wedding.

After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. Why would Sarah willingly go to her own death?

This is a gorgeous rich evocation of early Victorian London, full of details that bring the sweat and terror of Newgate prison to life. Sarah and Edmund are very different characters but equally well-drawn, and one of the delights of the novel was their gradual dance towards understanding one another. Anna Mazzola trained as a criminal justice solicitor and the descriptions of Edmund’s professional difficulties and frustrations felt authentic; however, despite her research and obvious fascination with her subject, the historical detail doesn’t weigh the novel down but rather adds to the depth and realism.

Kate McQuaile: What She Never Told Me

Louise Redmond left Ireland for London before she was twenty. Now, more than two decades later, her heart breaking from a failing marriage, she is summoned home. Her mother is on her deathbed, and it is Louise’s last chance to learn the whereabouts of a father she never knew.

Stubborn to the end, Marjorie refuses to fill in the pieces of her daughter’s fragmented past. Then Louise unexpectedly finds a lead. Is he really the father she’s been trying to find? And who is the mysterious little girl who appears so often in her dreams?

An intense and intelligent exploration of identity, family and the reliability of memory. What She Never Told Me contains elements of suspense and psychological thriller, but more than that, it’s a beautiful evocation of grief and loss.

Sarah Schmidt: See What I Have Done

Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a a wholly unique reimagining of the infamous true story of Lizzie Borden, who gained celebrity status after being tried and acquitted for the murders of her father and stepmother.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to the maid: Someone’s killed father. The brutal axe-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their house in Fall River, Massachusetts ignites a series of domestic nightmares. From the outside, no one can understand why anyone would want to murder the respected Bordens. From the inside, sisters Lizzie and Emma have a different tale to tell. Both unmarried and intimately bound together in a stifling environment, they each struggle against their oppressive home-life while longing for independence.

As the police fail to find clues, Lizzie tries to make sense of the moments leading up to the discovery of the bodies. But there are other witnesses to the crime. Through the overlapping perspectives of Emma, the housemaid Bridget, the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, and the fascinating Lizzie herself, the ghosts of their pasts resurface and return to that fateful day.

Together with The Nix, this is the best debut novel I read in 2016. It’s a brilliant and accomplished retelling of a well-known story – and the retelling adds depth and interest to the known facts. The characters are exquisitely-drawn and, for me, Schmidt’s biggest achievement is that each of the four narrative voices is utterly distinct and utterly credible. The prose is consistently outstanding: every single sentence is perfect.

Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks

When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town. Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.

Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures; newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake; photographer Jerry, who’s determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all. And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own.

Along with Sirens, this is my pick for crime novel of the year. It reads like Twin Peaks crossed with A Confederacy of Dunces: it’s moving, suspenseful, original, and very very funny. The characters are beautifully drawn and I was holding my breath as the resolution unfolded.

 

And two other debuts published this month which I haven’t read yet but am really looking forward to…

Fiona Cummins: Rattle

A psychopath more frightening than Hannibal Lecter. He has planned well. He leads two lives. In one he’s just like anyone else. But in the other he is the caretaker of his family’s macabre museum. Now the time has come to add to his collection. He is ready to feed his obsession, and he is on the hunt.

Jakey Frith and Clara Foyle have something in common. They have what he needs.

Katie Khan: Hold Back The Stars

Carys and Max have ninety minutes of air left. Adrift in space with nothing to hold on to but each other, they can’t help but look back at the world they left behind. A world whose rules they couldn’t submit to, a place where they never really belonged; a home they’re determined to get back to because they’ve come too far to lose each other now.

 

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