For a reader, there’s something magical about picking up a first novel — that promise of discovery, the possibility of finding a new writer whose work you can love for years to come, the likelihood of semi-autobiography for you to mull over. The debut is even more important for the writer — after all, you only get one first impression. Luckily, there are a lot of fantastic first impressions to be had. In fact, the year’s best might have been published just this month. After the jump, check out some of the greatest first novels written since 1950 — some that sparked great careers, some that are still the writers’ best work, and some that remain free-standing (but hopefully not for long!). Don’t see your favorite debut here? Add it to the list in the comments.
The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (2000)
Helen DeWitt is a genius. So, for that matter, are her characters: the resilient, frustrated Sibylla and her four-year-old son Ludo, who learns new languages like other children learn new words, and by 11 has a practical, dry outlook on life that balances his almost absurdist quest to find his father. DeWitt has estimated that she attempted some hundred novels before she wrote this one. If that’s true, boy was it worth it: formally innovative, delicious to read and full of knowledge, books rarely get better than this.