As a debut novelist, I tend to read other debut novelists. I didn’t always. I used to read mostly books that were recommended to me by my mother or by friends. I usually only found an author after they had published two or three books. I thought of this as waiting for the cream to rise, so that I wouldn’t have to suffer through that disappointing moment of setting a book down and giving up on it.
It turns out, I was really wrong. When I started reading debut novelists, it was like entering a jungle of wild and improbable offerings. The books coming out this year are so good, so vital, so needing to be written, that I have been helpless to do anything but enjoy them and wish them wild success.
For this list, I am not including the debut novelists you have probably already heard of this year, like Roxanne Gay, Edan Lepucki, or Tiphanie Yanique, though if you haven’t read them yet, GO, and go now, and read them. I am also limiting myself to novels published in 2014 that are already out, which means excluding some wonderful books I have been lucky enough to get advanced copies of.
So here are the top five debuts written by women so far in 2014 that you might not have already heard of:
1. 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
I love stories about plucky orphans, and while the protagonist of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is only half-orphan, she embodies the archetype: at nine years old, Madeleine is an aspiring jazz singer, a smoker of her dead mother’s cigarettes, and a talented abuser of foul language.
“After the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, Madeleine’s mother filled a recipe box with instructions on how to do various things she knew she wouldn’t be around to teach her. HOW TO MAKE A FIST, HOW TO CHANGE A FLAT, HOW TO WRITE A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR A GIFT YOU HATE, HOW TO BE EFFICIENT: Whenever you are doing one thing, ask yourself: what else could I be doing? On one recipe card, Madeleine’s mother listed the rules of singing.
The #1 rule: KNOW YOURSELF.”
It’s a beautiful romp of a novel.
2. For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu
Writing across difference is the writerly equivalent of a magic trick. Such feats, like a man writing as a woman, or a woman writing as a dog, are ultimately an illusion, but because novels are nothing but illusions, in many ways writing difference is at the core of the whole endeavor that is literature. Just as magic can be done badly in tired dinner theaters, writing difference can be done badly and further perpetuate gender, race, or class stereotypes, or it can be done so well that it feels like the author has written something true by writing many lies. And when that happens, what is just a trick becomes something magic.
In many ways For Today I Am a Boy is the portrait of a family, even as it is the portrait of Peter Huang, a boy born the only son to Chinese immigrant parents, who knows early that he wants to be a woman. Fragmented, at times painfully sparse, the book explores many conflicting notions of identity in nuanced, non-reductive ways.
Kim Fu is not a trans woman, and I am not a trans woman. So far I haven’t seen any major critiques of the book in the trans community besides a thoughtful and really complimentary review by S. Bear Bergman. It is entirely possible that there is much to critique in Fu’s depiction of a trans woman in Peter Huang that I was simply deaf to. It happens. But mainly I felt excited that a trans woman was being depicted at all.
It is a book worth reading for the beauty of its prose, the subtlety of its lens, and the importance of the questions it raises. Fu is a writer to be reckoned with.
3. The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
As premises go, I am not sure Rachel Urquhart could have checked off more items on my private fascinations list: set in the 1840s, the novel follows fifteen-year-old Polly Kimball. After burning down her house and murdering her father, Polly takes shelter in a Shaker community where she is hailed a “Visionist” for the community, receiving mystical visions from God.
Filled with vivid historical detail and with some serious feminist subtext, Urquhart’s debut is well worth the read. There is a vivid clarity and unnatural feeling of mystery created throughout by the simplicity of the prose. As Sister Charity says in the prologue of the novel, “I thought the world was simple because I thought I was simple. On both counts I was mistaken.”
4. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize, Emma Healey’s debut novel Elizabeth Is Missing concerns, of all things, an old woman. If you ask me, there are not nearly enough books written about old women. You would think we all simply evaporate the moment we turn fifty.
A dazzling play on the mystery novel, instead of a detective or private eye, we follow Maud, who suffers from dementia, as she tries to find out what has happened to her friend, Elizabeth, about whose disappearance no one will believe her. The interplay between the reader’s journey, as they try to piece together the mystery, and Maud’s own understanding, as her memory tosses up useful facts but loses hold of others, is masterfully done.
5. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
I have a prejudice against books that are about people with lives very much like my own. If I wanted to know about people like me, I would just talk to my friends. Instead, I search for books that will take me to places I have never been and could never go, which is perhaps why I fell instantly for The People in the Trees, which has also been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
The premise is that in the 1950s an arrogant doctor-turned-anthropologist, Norton Perina, discovers a “lost tribe” in Micronesia who, through consuming the flesh of a rare turtle, has discovered the secret to immortality– an immortality only of the body, but not of the mind. Told as a memoir penned by Perina, Yanagihara makes brilliant use of the unreliable narrator. The book is lush and cerebral and mesmerizing.
Who are you, Hanya Yanagihara? And what will you be writing next?