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.
Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo
By Anjan Sundaram
This well-crafted debut memoir chronicles Sundaram’s life in the Congo, where he moves to become a journalist.
In 2005, Sundaram turns down the opportunity to get a PhD in Math or a high paid finance job, and moves to the Congo to write. Inspired by Ryszard Kapuscinski, he wants to capture the stories that are not being told in the West. He chooses the Congo because he knows a bank teller in New Haven from there, and he moves in with her family. He has no job offer or salary, instead he seeks out work as a stringer for the large news agencies; a career move that is unpredictable at best. This memoir recounts his early days in Kinshasa, when he struggles to place articles and make any money, to when he finally breaks stories with major US papers. It recounts the prevalent poverty and violence in the Congo (his phone is stolen and he is robbed early on), and his transformation as he leaves Kinshasa to travel up the Congo, where he writes about smaller communities, reports from the war zone in Northeastern Congo, and later is one of the only Western journalist in Kinshasa after the 2006 elections results come in.
Sundaram has a very strong narrative voice. He is a gifted storyteller who can turn an ordinary situation into an intriguing story. And he, as he set out to do, witnesses people and events that are rarely depicted in Western media. After his phone is stolen, he tries to recover it and ends up spending an evening with three young reckless teenagers, giving voice to their lives and struggles. Life is not easy for Sundaram, nor for anyone he meets, but he has a gracefulness with which he approaches the challenges and is able to persist, despite compounding obstacles. I found this book to be a page-turner, as I kept wondering—how does he make it? What will be the turning point for his career? And the ending delivers. For anyone interested in Africa, this book is a window into lives that you will not usually read about.
Sundaram lived in Rwanda after the Congo. He recently spoke about the book and his experiences on the John Stewart Show.
I received an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley.