Every author has to start somewhere, but while some writers take a few books to find their stride, others manage to create incredible works straight out the gate. Or, perhaps, these authors haven’t even hit their peaks yet, and these debuts are that good but there’s something even more amazing to come. I can’t wait to find out. Here are five of the best debut novels I’ve read so far this year.
Note: These are not all 2020 debuts, just my favourite first novels I’ve read so far in 2020.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
Homegoing is the book I’m going to be recommending to people for years to come. It begins as the story of two half sisters in Ghana who never meet, and follows through the generations of two family lines of which they are matriarchs. One sister is sent away from her family to marry a British officer in a nearby castle, ensuring her village’s place in the slave trade, while the other is enslaved herself in that same castle as the result of war between tribes. In alternating chapters, the stories of their descendants—from Africa to America and finally back to Ghana—leap from the page in powerful vignettes. It’s almost unbelievable that this is Gyasi’s debut novel, so rich, engaging, and devastating is the writing.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)
Almost every review of Exciting Times you read is going to compare it to another Irish author and her novel about a young, rudderless woman in an alienating, undefined relationship. And yes, I too have been recommending this to people with the phrase “Big Sally Rooney vibes,” but it’s not just another Normal People. Dolan’s style is sardonic and witty, with just enough warmth to make her protagonist, the introspective, often-ennui-filled Ava who moved from Ireland to Hong Kong on a whim, one you want to follow through her dead-end English teaching job and unfulfilling non-relationship with an expat English banker. When Ava meets Edith, a vibrant lawyer who makes romantic clichés seem sweet and life seem suddenly exciting, Dolan’s prose pulls you in and charms the reader as much as Edith charms Ava.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)
I was lucky enough to be able to briefly rejoin my old work book club when they moved from monthly bar meetings to online zoom discussions during the lockdown, and I was asked to choose a book. My Sister, The Serial Killer was my pick, and I’m happy to say it was well-received. Korede is the long-suffering sister of Ayoola, a beautiful, vivacious young woman who maybe accidentally occasionally murders her boyfriends, leaving Korede to clean up the mess. Nigeria is the source of so much exciting contemporary literature, and Braithwaite’s debut is no exception. A quick read about family and sisterhood, social media, the patriarchy, choices and consequences, this book is darkly funny and sharply satirical.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2019)
Another social commentary, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age is an entirely prescient book for the current moment. Protagonist Emira is babysitting the daughter of a social media influencer when she is accosted by a security guard in a grocery store and accused of kidnapping the toddler (you can probably guess that the little girl is white and Emira is Black). The incident changes the relationship between Emira and her employer Alix, who tries to make amends—but for her own self-serving reasons rather than true concern for Emira. As the two women’s lives intertwine and diverge, Reid captures and critiques casual racism, white saviourism, and performative allyship in compelling and incisive form.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor (2020)
Brandon Taylor’s exquisite debut feels in some ways more like a character study than a story. Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black student from Alabama studying biochemistry at a large Midwestern university (a story that closely mirrors Taylor’s own pre-writing background), where he feels like an outsider as he faces microaggressions and struggles to fit in with his cohort’s seemingly effortless, confident connections. Wallace is a poignant, beautiful character, full of weariness, loneliness, vulnerability, but also understandable anger and frustration at his sidelining in the classic campus setting. The words seem to sing on the page, full of compelling images both soft and jarring.