I’ve been reading the best books lists for the year, and although Electric Literature lobbies that 2014 was “the year of the debut,” I feel like the only four debut authors who are getting much attention are: Celeste Ng, Phil Klay, Matthew Thomas and Smith Henderson. And I am surprised that a number of the best of lists don’t feature any debuts at all. I know that not every book can be a “best” book, and this year was notable for how many stand out authors published books that are getting attention, the best lists include Marilynne Robinson, David Mitchell, Joshua Ferris and Lorrie Moore to name a few, but I can’t help thinking of all the debut novels I read this year that are not bubbling up.
Last week I wrote about Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which was one of my favorite novels of 2014. I thought the writing was beautiful and I enjoyed how Munaweera mixed genres, combining a multi-generational story, with an immigrant story and a war story. For my next post, I will write about Donal Ryan’s, The Spinning Heart, which got a lot of attention when it came out earlier this year in the United States and won the Guardian First Book Award in 2013, but I have not seen mentioned on any of the year end lists. I loved how he used multiple voices to tell a story and how he told a complex story of life in rural Ireland after the economic collapse in 156 pages.
But the book, which I think is the most underrated debut of the year is Anjan Sundarman’s, Stringer, a memoir set in Africa, an homage to Ryszard Kapuscinski, which tells the moving story about Sundarman’s attempt to be a stringer in the Congo in 2005.
Happy holiday reading and to a happy new year! And if you are looking for a list of top debut novels for the year, Kirkus Reviews has a nice list to explore.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors
By Nayomi Munaweera
St. Martin’s Press, 2014
I first read about Island of a Thousand Mirrors when it published in South Asia two years ago, and waited, with much anticipation, for it to come out in the U.S. I was not disappointed; this book is one of my favorite debuts of 2014.
Set in Sri Lanka, and the U.S., Island of a Thousand Mirrors tells the story of two Sri Lankan families, one Tamil and the other Sinhalese, whose lives and histories intersect over the course of three generations. The book begins as a family history in 1948, right after independence. For many years the Tamil and Sinhala populations lived together amicably, and during that time, Yasodhara (the narrator of the book) and Shiva are born to two families who live in tandem, from the two cultures of the island. The two grow up together until 1983 when the civil war begins and the differences between the Tamils and Sinhalese tear the country, and their two families, apart. Yasodhara’s family eventually moves to the United States, where she grows up in LA. The second part of the book tells the story of a female Tamil fighter and the lives of Shiva and Yasodhara as young adults. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens in the second part, but I found the ending to be satisfying and powerful.
I liked how Munaweera deftly mixed multiple genres, telling a multi-family history, an immigrant story and the story of the Sri Lankan civil war. I am familiar with the civil war in Sri Lanka, but never understood the roots of the conflict until I read this book. I enjoyed it as both a family story and a window into a nation’s history.
Munaweera lives in San Francisco.
I received an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
The best books lists are starting to appear. I will note a few that feature debuts.
The Huffington Post calls attention to Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, which I wrote about last week.They also feature two other debuts:
- Nobody is Ever Missing, by Catherine Lacey. This book tells the story of a woman who flees Manhattan for New Zeland. It is described as a beautifully written book of a lost woman trying to find herself.
- The Story of Land and Sea, by Katy Simpson Smith. A historical novel set in North Carolina during the American Revolution, which tells the multi-generational story of a family.
NPR packaged their top book picks into a “book concierge” site. It’s a fun site to explore with plenty of titles to discover. You can sort titles by witty book categories like, “rather long” or “funny stuff,” to find books that might appeal. Under “realistic fiction,” I found Ng’s book, along with 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helen Bertino, which I reviewed earlier this year. They also featured Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek, which explores the relationship between and boy and a social worker in Montana. It has been described as a moving and powerful read and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.
And over at Goodreads, their community singled out three debuts in the fiction category, all which I’ve mentioned at some time this year:
I hope these lists inspire you to pick up a new book for yourself or something to gift to someone else. The book I review next, which I did not see on any of these lists, was one of my favorite debuts of the year, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera.