The greatest pleasure associated with debut fiction, especially debut novels, is naturally the feeling of new avenues of possibility opening up; there’s something extra exciting about watching a new author try to work out a style and find a voice – perhaps only to disregard them both in their next outing, or perhaps to refine them until they change the landscape of contemporary fiction. I’ve helped my fair share of such initial outings take place, but even for me there’s a special thrill in the publication itself, the debut before well-wishers and sharp-eyed critics. 2015 was neither a great year for debut fiction nor a terrible one – but it had highlights, and there were the best of them:
10. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf) – Of course, in one sense 2015 was The Season of the Debut – one particular debut, this one, a huge, panoramic historical novel about the punk-fueled, graffiti-fouled New York City of the 1970s. The book famously sold for a gigantic price (and sold its movie rights almost before its own agent had ever heard of it), so the critical knives were out long before it reached bookstores. And yet, divorced from all those distractions – read anonymously, as it were, with a brown paper bag for a cover (an improvement, in this case) – the book is terrific and endlessly interesting. I have no idea what it portends – my guess would be that we see nothing more from this author for at least a decade – but I loved it so much I read it twice.
9. No. 4 Imperial Lane by Jonathan Weisman (Twelve) – Predictability hovered over this novel about a hapless young man who takes a job as the nurse and caretaker of a wealthy, sarcastic paralytic – and not the good kind of predictable that I (an unabashed Regency Romance fan) love so much, but rather a John Green kind of predictability where you get the sickening sense the author thinks he’s creating new stuff left and right. But that predictability only hovers for a little while as the novel gets going – then the heartfelt conviction of Weisman’s prose takes over. You can read my full review here.
8. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto (Penguin Group) – This amazing debut tracks the shockwaves that travel through a small group of friends in small-town Pakistan in the immediate wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan, and Fatima Bhutto could have won a ration of critical praise simply for providing readers with a good-enough glimpse into a largely foreign world at a largely-famous turning point in history. But she goes so far beyond that minimum – in dialogue, in atmosphere, and especially in her understanding of her own characters – that you’ll consistently forget you’re reading a first novel.
7. The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) – Lindsey Drager sets several plots spinning in her very moving debut, but the two main ones revolve around the baleful tug of the future: in the case of a couple whose daughter dies suddenly outside the local library, a future without her that may or may not be of their own making, and in the case of the staff of the library itself, a future without many of the old familiar contours of their world, as technology threatens to change their jobs completely. For most of this novel, I had little or no idea what the author was going to do next – which is such a rare feeling for me, especially when reading fiction, that I just wanted it to continue indefinitely.
6 Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson (Penguin Random House) – I was very pleased to see this big, enormously complicated and ambitious “illuminated” novel get some smart, fair critical assessments when it appeared, especially since it would have been so easy for critics to dismiss it as more gimmick than substance. It tells many stories, but mainly two running in roughly parallel tracks, one set 150 years ago on the borders of the Republic of Texas and one set in the future after civilization’s partial collapse, and all its stories are united by the author’s gently authoritative creativity – to such a degree that if the thing had had not one single gimcrack or illustration, it would have been every bit as spellbinding (or maybe just a bit more, which is my own suspicion).
5 Wilberforce by H. S. Cross (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – Every year, a small handful of novels manage to confound me so thoroughly that I read them the first time with a kind of disgusted complacency and return to them only reluctantly and unexpectedly. This book – the story of a bunch of delinquents at a fictional English boarding school in the early 20th century – was certainly of that kind, and not even the intriguing moral vacuousness of its title character could shake my first judgements. But I kept thinking about it, and finally returned to it for a more intense re-reading – and now I’m convinced the author is playing a much, much deeper game than I at first guessed. I can’t wait for her next book set in this world she’s created.
4 The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Graywolf Press) – There are two tent-pole gimmicks structuring this incredibly energetic and very weird novel: first, it’s a post-apocalyptic historical novel, in which the end of the world is the Norman Conquest, not the zombie apocalypse, and second, its story is told in an elaborately-constructed faux-Old English of the author’s creation. And those two gimmicks might have been the end of it, but Kingsnorth very winningly remembers what so many novelists tend to forget: that if readers want gimmicks, they can buy an iPhone – the novelist’s job is to move and entertain. And underneath the linguistic fireworks of this novel there is a very moving story – although I don’t begrudge the fireworks; Kingsnorth makes them work wonders.
3 We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach (Simon & Schuster) – This seems to be a year in which YA fiction is creeping into quite a few of my lists, which is disturbing (since I have nothing but contempt for the gazelle-herds of shaving, fornicating, tax-paying adults who’ve spent the last few years in full-blown retreat into fiction written for children) but also perhaps an indication that 2016’s Stevereads year-end festivities need a YA list of their own. But in the meantime, there’s this wonderfully smart and propulsive debut novel (likewise optioned by Hollywood, which must be very grateful reading hasn’t died the death so many critics have predicted for it) about a group of teens facing the death of the world by giant killer asteroid. Like so many of the books on this list, it stuck with me so tenaciously that I went back and re-read it only a month after reading it the first time. You can read my full review here.
2. Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne (Europa Editions) – Disaster looms over the plots of quite a few of the books on our list this time around, from killer asteroids to invading Normans to societal collapses (plus the end of the British Empire and the New York City blackout of 1977, if we’re keeping count), and this amazingly raw and powerful novel is no exception: here, the disaster is the defeat of Japan in 1945 in the wake of two atomic bomb-blasts. This cataclysm snatches up Byrne’s small group of characters and hurls their lives into chaos, and so effective is his writing that we feel ourselves right along with them throughout. There are absolutely indelible images on virtually every page.
1. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (Hogarth) – This, the best debut novel of 2015, is ostensibly about a darkly-miraculous youth-and-beauty potion (the “viper wine” of the title) that begins to make the rounds of the high-born ladies at the court of King Charles I, all of whom want the extra glow it provides but none of whom is prepared for its addictive qualities. But Hermione Eyre is going about so much more than pursuing a plot – like much of the best historical fiction in the last few years (and like some of it on this very list), the highlight of this novel is the startlingly original voice running through it, the wonderfully off-kilter sensibility that makes its goings-on seem both familiar and enticingly strange. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough, especially for the adventurous reader, and I’m now eagerly anticipating whatever this author does next.
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