The debut novel is a tricky thing. Sure, the author may have put out short story collections or written pieces for major magazines, but a novel is truly a different animal, one which some authors have likened to a first child or first love (or first heartbreak). In composing their first novel, writers must temper their excitement at being given the opportunity to present hundreds of pages to the public with the discipline to create a story memorable enough to bring readers back for their second attempt. Finding that balance isn’t always easy, but when a debut novel works, it’s a uniquely electrifying literary experience. Here are ten of 2013’s best.
Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain
Crain is the rare debut novelist who writes with the sort of confidence we’d expect from an author who has already penned books upon books. And, in fact, Crain is no novice; he has been writing about, studying, and translating literature for years now. That’s probably why Crain’s novel, following the life of Jacob Putnam, a gay man in post-Velvet Revolution Prague feels more like a fourth or fifth novel. His control of pace and affect, and his descriptions of the city and people, make us feel like we’re right there. This book wasn’t simply written — it was crafted.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman
A writer writing a book about a writer is a dicey proposition, and a writer writing a book about a writer living in Brooklyn can run the risk of eliciting more than a few cynical sighs. Yet Adelle Waldman not only decided to do these things in her first novel, but also wrote the book from a man’s point of view, and ended up creating a story that’s both believable and entertaining to read. In doing so, she gave Brooklyn literature a poster boy. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. will probably be remembered for many things, but here’s hoping that it lives on as a document of not just a New York City borough in this day and age, but American literature as a whole — in all its goodness and especially all its awkwardness.
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt
Holt’s gripping debut followed Sarah Zuckerman, a college woman on a quest to find out what happened to a childhood friend who supposedly died in a Cold War-era plane crash — and contained just the right combination of intrigue and literary prowess to get readers talking and critics rhapsodizing.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell
The type of book that will haunt you long after you’ve read it, Bell’s novel mixes myth with a spooky, unsettling tone best described as “Midwestern Borges.” The grief that consumes this man and his wife, out in the wilderness, over their inability to make a child — and Bell’s ability to put us right there with them — is something few writers, debut or otherwise, could so perfectly render.
The Facdes, Eric Lundgren
Welcome to Trude, a fictional city somewhere in the Midwest that sprung from the fertile imagination of Eric Lundgren. The Facades is a sorta-noir sorta-statement on the state of 21st-century Middle America that follows its protagonist on a Lynchian quest through labyrinths and mazes disguised as the modern structures we see every day as he tries to find his disappeared wife.
The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan
Told in the lively slang of Anais, an orphaned 15-year-old Scottish girl who’s being hauled off to an unusual home for juvenile offenders over a violent crime she can’t recall whether she committed, The Panopticon is a dreamy document of friendship among young people who society has not only failed but scapegoated. Yet Fagan — an author whose experience as a poet comes through in her evocative prose — doesn’t sugarcoat her story or turn it into a tale of a bad girl gone good. There are moments of triumph for Anais, but there’s no panacea for her lifetime of terrible luck and systemic oppression.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
Only a few novels come out every year that really get people talking. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, about a beautiful Florida teacher/sexual predator who preys on young boys, was one of those books. And for good reason: balancing the cold, capitalist sociopathy of American Psycho with a plot that was screaming for comparisons with Nabokov’s Lolita, Nutting gave us a deeply disturbing novel that was tough to put down.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis
One day you’re studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, honing your craft as a writer, and the next Oprah is making you into a celebrity by selecting your extraordinary debut novel for her book club, launching you to the top of the bestseller list. But even without the sudden fame and the Oprah co-sign, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a stunner of a first novel that takes a big, broad look at struggle in America through the life of Hattie, who leaves the South for Philadelphia and the hope of a better life for herself and her family. Of course, things don’t always work out as planned, and Mathis’ rendering of what happens next won her comparisons to Faulkner and Steinbeck.
Mira Corpora, Jeff Jackson
Its dark, hazy prose recounting the mesmerizing story of a young runaway trying to survive as he grows up, Jackson’s gripping debut displayed the endorsements of both Don DeLillo and Dennis Cooper on its jacket. The bleak and surreal world of Mira Corpora is one you won’t be able to get out of your head, and the pacing of the book makes for a fast read that you’ll want to revisit immediately.
Elect H. Mouse State Judge, Nelly Reifler
The shortest book on this list, Reifler’s strange tale about a politician, his abducted-mice daughters, and the Barbie-doll private detectives hired to find them combines surrealist hardboiled fiction with a dose of dark humor for a debut that’s over all too quickly.