As I reflect on the year of reading, I want to call attention to three debut novels that are now all available in paperback….
Best award-winning debut
I’m not one to seek out books about snow or Alaska, but I loved Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child. Its magical realism and poetic prose made for a splendidly unique book.
Best critically-acclaimed debut
Patrick Flanery’s Absolution stands out to me for his unique storytelling, moving story and sharp prose. I much enjoyed this book, but haven’t encountered many others who have read it. But Flanery fans don’t have to wait long for his second book—Fallen Land just came out. I can’t wait to dive in.
Best underrated debut
Thomas Van Essen’s The Center of the World drew me in to all four of its interlocking stories. The prose is crisp, the themes are engaging and I loved that the book revolved around a fictional painting. This is a great book that deserves to be more widely read.
Later this week I will be offering two readers of Proto Libro a chance to receive a copy of The Center of the World…stay tuned for details…..
ONE — You don’t have to be young to debut. The biggest surprise of this year of reading has been the age of the authors. While plenty of debut and emerging writers are in their twenties and thirties (enter Eleanor Catton), a quarter of the books I reviewed in 2012/2013 were published by authors over the age of 40 and there are many who debut after the age of forty or even fifty. Charlotte Rogan signed a contract on The Lifeboat right after her 57th birthday. Ben Fountain was a National Book Award finalist for Billy Lynn’s Long Hafltime Walk, also published in his fifties. And later this year I am going to review Lies You Wanted to Hear, by James Whitfield Thomson, who is 67. We live in a time when it is OK, even exciting, to celebrate authors who publish their first books after 40. There is even a blog, Bloom, which writes about emerging authors in this age band.
TWO — There is no formula. Some debut novels are written in first person, others in third. Some are sprawling and written in many voices, others are smaller and written from one POV. Some authors show more than tell and others tell more than show. I give Kevin Wilson a shout out for the debut novelist best able to show – I don’t think there is a single page in The Family Fang, which summarizes or recounts, but each of the books I read had a unique voice, a flair which made me feel like anyone who cites a rule for what kind of novel can make it is not reading what is being published today. And while the two most experimental books I read this year, Thrill-Bent by Jan Richman and Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, were published by small presses, Tupelo and Coffee House Press, respectively, mainstream publishers do take risks. When I read The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, and published by Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, I was drawn in to the story and the prose, but never would I have predicted this book could be a finalist for the Pulitzer. And Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, published by Penguin, is a free spirited book that reminded me of the books published by small presses.
THREE — The novel is not dead. After reading such a range of debut novels in the past year, I feel strongly that the novel is alive and well in American culture; there actually isn’t enough time in a year for any one person to read and review all of the stand out debut books published. As a culture we might not read as many novels as we did 10 or 20 years ago, but there is an appetite for writing fiction, and it is exciting to read new authors and books.
What do you think? What have you noticed about debut novels in 2013?