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.
BookExpo America (BEA) was last week and although I didn’t attend this year, I have been following their Buzz Books list, which features summer and fall release books they think are going to do well. Of the debut novels featured, war and family are themes I saw in a lot of the books, with a few of them being historical novels. Three that stood out to me are:
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. A historical novel set in 17th Century Amsterdam involving a woman who gets a miniature replica of her home as a wedding gift. The author was written about in this recent Guardian article, after the London Book Fair. (Summer 2014)
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. A story about two families divided by the Sir Lankan Civil War. It has been compared to Anil’s Ghost and The God of Small Things, which are two of my favorite books. I really want to read this one! (Fall 2014)
The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle. After spending many years living overseas, a young woman comes back to Tennessee to come to terms with her father’s release from prison and the death of her stepmother, who her father killed 17 years before. (Fall 2014)
And finally, congrats to Elizabeth Scarboro for wining this year’s Chautauqua Prize for her moving debut memoir, My Foreign Cities, which I reviewed earlier this year. A well-deserved prize for a remarkable book. If you have not read it yet, this memoir, a love story between a 20-something woman and 20-something man with a terminal illness, is one of the best books I have reviewed this year, but make sure you buy some tissues before you get too deep into the story.
More reviews next week…for the next couple of reviews, I will be writing about debut memoirs.