Another yardstick useful in measuring the strength of publishing is the health of its new genes. I have a large soft spot for debut novels (having yanked more than my fair share of them out of talented young authors who fought me tooth and nail the whole time), and 2012 was an exciting, encouraging year for them (despite the idiotic, embarrassing fact that #s 8, 6, 4, 3, & 2 all have identical covers). These were the ten best:
10. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer – This wrenching roman-a-clef about a socially maladroit young student at Wellesley College has all the quirky, dysfunctional hallmarks that should have made it insufferable, even for a debut – but Percer’s huge narrative intelligence saves the day time and again.
9. The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya – The labored “Antigone” parallels in Bhattacharya’s Afghanistan novel are actually its weakest element; by far more effective are the raw human portraits he sketches throughout, and the hot, sparse beauty of his prose, which so uncannily mirrors the desolate beauty of Afghanistan itself.
8. The Mountains of the Moon by I. J. Kay – Lulu Adler, the central character in Kay’s hugely ambitious, hallucinatory novel, gets one lucky break (some inheritance money) in a life full of unlucky ones, and she uses it to travel to Africa in the hopes of changing her life. Again, the elements are all there for unbearable schmaltz (as we will certainly see in the inevitable Emma Stone movie), and again, it’s the sheer talent and conviction of the author that instead make it something truly amazing.
7. Absolution by Patrick Flanery – The cool balance between conventional plot-driven narrative and richly evocative portrait of South Africa is struck perfectly in Flanery’s story of writer Clare Ward and her secrets. Ten pages of Absolution is enough to convince you this is the author’s tenth novel; the fact that it’s his first could be great news for the world of fiction.
6. The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang – Almost every aspect of Kang’s debut absolutely pops with manic creativity (starting with the inspired detail that the book’s hapless main character only learns of the book’s key plot development because it happens while he’s Googling himself); the book is a weird comic masterpiece – of a type that virtually guarantees we’ll never hear from this author again (although on that point I’d be happy to be wrong)
5. The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont – The opening of Dermont’s East Coast prep school novel is almost lazily deceptive in both tone and scope, lulling the reader with slangy first-person narration into what steadily becomes a gripping, emotionally intense story about friendship and betrayal, with a surprising and very pleasing amount of heft.
4. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead – Set on a fictional stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, Shipstead’s slyly readable novel takes place over the course of only three days and centers on a vain, flawed, status-seeker straight out of Cheever who’s overseeing the wedding of his daughter (she’ll be played by Emma Stone in the movie) – the family summer house is packed with a volatile mixture of family, friends, and extra-marital temptations, and Shipstead handles it all with enviable skill.
3. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins – Hutchins’ unpretentious book is about fathers and sons finding common ground, and it’s wonderfully complicated by the fact that the son in question is connecting with a computer algorithm of his father, who committed suicide ten years before. The result is at time almost unbearably touching – the book has been compared to Thomas Powers’ Galatea 2.0, but there’s a climactic scene that will also remind readers of the last-60-pages punch of Powers’ The Goldbug Variations.
2. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – For an adolescent, parental strife and the agonies of first love can seem like the end of the world, but for Julia, the young heroine of Walker’s amazingly assured debut, these things are suddenly accompanied by the real end of the world: the planet’s rotation is slowing down, and what would have been a grating allegorical gimmick in most other hands is here turned into an enlightening backdrop to some of the finest writing of the year. Read it before the inevitable Emma Stone movie version.
1. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu – The three young friends at the heart of Boianjiu’s sharp, indelible book – the best debut novel of 2012 – are part of the Israeli Defense Forces, stationed on an active, dangerous border; their lives, loves, and heartbreak are mingled with mortar fire. Like so many of the novels on this list, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid sports the easy, accomplished panache of a novel by a much older author (Boainjiu was born in 1987, which was approximately 35 minutes ago), and like all such stellar debuts, it makes me optimistic for the future of fiction (although less optimistic about the prospect of watching Emma Stone try to “do Jewish” for two hours on the big screen)