The 26 Best Literary Debut Novels Written By Women In The Last 5 Years
As a reader, I love my tried-and-true classics — those books that you turn to again and again, like a comforting sweater or a favorite vacation spot, because you know exactly what you’re going to get, and you love it. But at the same time, there is something really exciting about discovering a great female-authored debut novel — the fresh voice, the surprising turns of phrase, the characters you haven’t met anywhere else before, and of course, the fact that you’re now the coolest of all your book-loving friends, and it’s your responsibility to let everyone else in on the secret. Lucky for you, you’re about to become privy to 26 more new secrets; or, at least, 26 of the best debut novels written by women in the last five years.
In addition to the beautiful writing, compelling plots, and powerful (often female) characters, what I love about each of the amazing debut novels on this list is that they all contain something I’ve never seen before — a plot twist that hasn’t been utilized a thousand times over, a character who doesn’t quite remind you of anyone else you’ve met on the page, a setting you’ve never ventured into before. Because Pride and Prejudice will always be there — and I love it for that — but when I’m looking to dive into some fresh and unfamiliar terrain, I always go with a literary debut.
Here is some of the best debut fiction written by women in the last five years. I’ve basically just put together the rest of your book club’s 2016 reading list… and, you’re welcome.
1. The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake
Taking readers back to post-World War II Tokyo, The Translation of Love introduces Aya Shimamura, a 13-year-old Japanese-Canadian girl who is released from the Canadian internment camp where her mother died, only to be repatriated to Japan with her father. In Japan Aya, who speaks English fluently, struggles to fit in — less at home in post-war Tokyo than she ever was in Canada. But once her classmate Fumi Tanaka realizes that Aya might be able to use her English skills to help her find her missing older sister, things begin to turn around. Then Aya’s newfound friendship and the search for Fumi’s sister take her on a journey around Tokyo that puts both girls in danger. This historical debut is compelling and touching, demonstrating how the effects of war reverberate through countries and cultures for generations.
2. The Girls by Emma Cline
In this mesmerizing debut novel, inspired by the Manson murders of 1969, Emma Cline’s The Girls introduces readers to Evie Boyd, a 14-years-old girl who finds herself drawn into what turns out to be a cult, led by a disturbing, albeit intriguing man named Russell. But while the mysterious girls of the cult — their supposed freedom and never-ending love — seem like appealing pursuits, Evie begins to realize she might have been pulled into something darker than she realized. The Girls is a tale of being young and inexperienced, and how all the tiny decisions of girlhood can, sometimes, change your life forever. This debut is haunting and beautifully written, and you won’t be able to put it down.
3. Problems by Jade Sharma
Blend Mindy Kialing’s humor with Caitlin Moran’s irreverence, throw in a little of Hannah Horvath's (aka: Lena Dunham’s) disillusionment with her generation, and filter it all though the lens of Sylvia Plath, and you begin to scratch the surface of everything that is Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems. Maya is a young bookstore employee with a slightly-more-than-recreational heroin habit, who is completely unimpressed with her husband, her elderly lover, and her life in New York City. And she’s going to fix all of those things… just as soon as she gets around to losing twenty pounds and takes a quick nap. Unfortunately, life might beat her to the punch. The thing you'll love about Maya is that she knows exactly who she is — and she’ll change if and when she damn well feels like it. Until then, she’s just going to roll with it. Problems is an unromanticized and almost uncomfortably relatable portrayal of addiction and recovery.
4. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing tells the story of two sisters, Effia and Esi, born in different African villages at the same time. While the sisters share the same father, they are entirely unknown to one another. One will be sold into slavery, while the other is married to an Englishman and left to a life of relative freedom and comfort — though the sisters’ paths will cross in an unexpected way. From a civil war in 18th-century Ghana to 20th-century Harlem, this novel will take you around the world and back, into the lives of Effia and Esi, and those of their descendants, showing how two lives so very close together can grow so unimaginably apart.
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5. Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua
Vanessa Hua’s debut collection of fiction is technically not a novel, but it earned it's spot on this list by being exactly what we need to be reading in this country right now; and probably always. Zeroing in on a myriad of different immigration stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities features characters who are simultaneously running away from and running towards, who are clinging to the past and embracing the future, who are tied to their homeland traditions just as strongly as they are to their adopted country’s ambitions — and who somehow have to find a way to balance it all while carving out a new home for themselves in unfamiliar terrain. If I had to choose one word to describe Hua’s writing style, it would be personable — you actually feel like her narrators are sitting across the sofa from you, popping open the tab of a soda can as they prepare to tell you their story. This collection is funny and sad, quick-witted and thought provoking.
6. The Guineveres: A Novel by Sarah Domet
Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, is filled with all the things I love in a story. It features a group of vastly different, but uniquely similar young women who are equal parts resilient and wounded, deep and naïve, sacred and flawed, and who are all growing up in an uncommon setting — a convent — that informs the rest of their lives in ways none of them could have anticipated, or even necessarily want to admit from the vantage point of grown womanhood. Through a skilled blending of the tragedies experienced before their arrival at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent, their teenage years spent entirely isolated from the world that exists beyond the convent’s walls, and the lives they chose for themselves after, Domet has constructed a complete picture of the survival and revival journeys of four women, who readers will begin to feel as though they know in real life. You will hurt for each of these girls, mourn with them, grow angry at them, relate to their desires and longings, and question their choices — but like The Guineveres themselves, you won’t be able to help but to love them intensely.
7. Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
Written in the tradition of Mrs. Dalloway, Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, features a single day in the life of twenty-something Isabel — a girl who browses thrift stores and restores damaged library books with the same sincerity she uses to fall in love and mourn major environmental disasters. And you’ll love her for it. Written in cloudy, stream-of-consciousness prose, Glaciers travels from Isabel’s life in Portland, Oregon, to her childhood spent in remote Alaska, and reads like an exploration into the soul of a young woman trying to discover herself by mining the artifacts of her life against artifacts from the lives of others.
8. Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
Transporting readers to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, Church of Marvels is a debut novel that interweaves four seemingly disparate narratives together in a way that both mesmerizes and enchants, and that will leave you wanting more. The Church of Marvels, a Coney Island sideshow, has recently burned to the ground, taking its proprietor with it. Her daughters, Odile and Belle, are sent into a tailspin in the wake of their mother’s death, and Belle responds by disappearing into the city. On another side of town, a baby girl is discovered inside a dumpster by a janitor determined to save her. And yet another character, Alphie, finds herself wrongfully imprisoned in an asylum, and desperate to escape. How these characters’ lives cross, and the journeys they take once they do, will keep you turning pages.
9. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is another debut novel that takes readers into the darker side of New York City — this time during the worst days of the 2008 housing crisis. Jende and Neni Jonga are Cameroonian immigrants who moved to New York in search of better lives for themselves and their young son — and at first everything seems to be going as planned: both Jende and Neni acquire jobs that support their family, and life in America, while different than life in Cameroon, isn’t impossible. But then the economic collapse hits and the Jonga’s employers, the Edwards family, are faced with losing everything and may not be able to employ the couple for much longer. Without the façade of wealth, the crumbling personal lives of the Edwards come to light, and both Jende and Neni begin to realize that the American Dream might not be all that it seems.
10. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
As the youngest of The New Yorker’s twenty best American fiction writers under forty, you know Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is bound to be a must-read. The novel transports readers to the Balkans, into the heart of a landscape marked by death and destruction, and asks how we, as humans, respond to the impermanence of life. One of the characters, Natalie, is a traveling to the region as a physician on a mission trip to an orphanage, but she has her personal reasons for making the journey as well: solving the mystery of her grandfather’s death by reexamining the stories he told her as a child. You won't be able to put this one down.
11. The Anatomy of Dreams by Chloe Benjamin
This debut novel by Chloe Benjamin will leave you feeling super antsy every single time you go to bed for the foreseeable future — but it’s totally worth it. Haunting and suspenseful, The Anatomy of Dreams is about medical research gone wrong, and to what limits people are willing to push themselves and others in the name of science. Dr. Adrian Keller is a researcher of lucid dreaming, and two of his research subjects, Sylvie and Gabe, are with him for the long haul, no matter the toll it takes on their psyches. Like Sylvie, readers will begin to question Dr. Keller’s motives, and will find themselves uncertain about what is real and what is imagined, what is awake and what is sleep. This novel gets eerie, but the writing is beautiful.
12. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Not only is the circus featured in Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus — Le Cirque des Rêves — filled with dazzling, kaleidoscopic images, but her novel will take you on a mind-blowing, sensory-overloading journey as well. Gardens of ice, mazes of clouds, brilliantly decorated performance artists, and an olfactory bombardment of the most delectable of circus treats. But the trick is the circus only appears at night, and it arrives without fanfare or warning. Plus, behind the scenes a battle is being waged between two young circus performers, Celia and Marco — one that might change the future of the circus forever. Morgenstern’s artful imagery, plus her thrilling plot, make this debut a must-read.
13. Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
If you’ve ever fantasized about booking a one-way ticket to anywhere, and leaving your entire life behind with no notice, then Elyria, the protagonist of Catherine Lacey’s debut novel Nobody is Ever Missing is a girl after your own heart. Unfortunately, her problems can’t be solved by something as simple as a change in geography. Elyria is haunted by her sister’s death, and the further she travels into an unfamiliar landscape, the deeper she loses herself into her own mental illness. Elyria is angry, and takes dangerous risks — two realities that aren’t always apparent to those around her. And as her unpredictable emotions grow, Elyria becomes increasingly more confused about her own existence, and whether or not it matters.
14. Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
I love a good ballet story, and Sari Wilson’s debut, Girl Through Glass, is just that. Taking readers into the world of the New York City ballet, circa 1977, this novel introduces 11-year-old Mira, a girl who uses dance to forget the turmoil of her home life, and who embarks upon a dangerous affair with a much, much older dancer and mentor. Woven into Mira’s story is that of Kate, a present-day professor of dance who is involved in a risky affair with a younger student. Both these women, living in different places and different times, find themselves in seemingly impossible situations — ones that threaten to shatter the lives they’ve so carefully constructed for themselves.
15. The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church
Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love tells the story of Meridian Wallace, a young and brilliant ornithologist who sacrifices her own education and career when her scientist-fiance is transferred to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to work on a secret government project (one that will later become the atomic bomb.) Unable to quell her thirst for academia, Meridian dedicates herself to studying a family of crows living in the mountains outside her new home — but the stark landscape offers up more than just crows, as Meridian seeks to relieve the unfulfilled passions of her marriage through a friendship with a young geologist and Vietnam War veteran she meets while observing her birds. The Atomic Weight of Love is a beautiful and sad book that explores the kinds of difficult choices women make for their families.
16. Diamond Head by Cecily Wong
This intergenerational debut novel is filled with secrets, superstition, tragedy and passion, as it follows one Chinese-American family — the Leongs — as they move from China to Hawaii across a world that is changing just as rapidly as their own lives are. No matter the distance between themselves and their homeland, the Leongs are haunted by something called “the red string of fate” — a parable that guides romance and arranged marriages, and punishes anyone who errs in either. Then the Leong family patriarch, Frank, is murdered — the manifestation of a curse that ricochets off the family for generations to come, and 18-year-old Theresa, Frank’s grandchild, might be the only person who can stop it.
17. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
The only thing funnier than some of Nathaniel P.’s so-horrible-they're-laughable antics are the responses men have to this book — Adelle Waldman has you all figured out, gentlemen, and she’s shared the inner-workings of your psyche with the world. This debut novel introduces readers to Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something writer living in New York City who alternates between feigned guilt and feigned helplessness in order to get exactly what he wants and to justify his bad behavior. Usually bad behavior towards women. But when one of his many girlfriends starts to become more than just "one of the many" Nathaniel is forced to do a little self-reflection. If The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. doesn’t shed new light on every single one of your past relationships, either we went to different high schools or you need to read this novel again.
18. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
One thing I love about so many of the debut novels on this list is that they take the coming-of-age narrative universally shared by young women everywhere, and write it in a way that is inventive, and fresh, and compelling. And Shani Boianjiu’s debut collection of linked narratives, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, might just be one of the more original treatments of this theme that I’ve recently read. Yael, Avishag, and Lea have spent their lives in a tiny Israeli town, succumbing to all the stereotypes of a typical girlhood — thinking about boys, inventing and reinventing their images, worrying about school and grades — all amidst the political violence that surrounds them. But at 18-years-old they’re each conscripted into the Israeli army, where they bear witness to violence and atrocities that seem to demonstrate the futility of their girlhood longings, and that change the women they had only just started growing into forever. Boianjiu is a really smart writer, and everything she manages to pack into this novel will leave you a little breathless.
19. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Readers were obsessed with this literary debut when it came out in 2014, and it instantly became book club must-read material. Chinese-American teenager Lydia Lee is the favorite child of her parents, Marilyn and James. She’s also beautiful, popular, and on an unwavering path to success. Except for one tiny detail: she’s also dead. And her family doesn’t know it yet. And once Lydia’s body is found in a local lake, it sends her entire family into a tailspin — one that threatens to reveal long-held secrets, expose the truth of Lydia’s life, and potentially tear the Lee family apart.
20. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
As one of the three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is definitely a cannot-miss literary debut — no surprise there. The novel is imaginative, surprise and surreal, filled with vivid details, ambitious writing, and a plot that weaves fantasy with reality in a way that is both captivating and disorienting. Swamplandia! is set in an alligator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, where 12-year-old Ava has been effectively abandoned by her entire family and is responsible for managing the park entirely by herself — a task that sends her on an epic journey that tests the limits of her bravery.
21. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
A book that was immensely important when it was first published just two years ago has been made even more so by this year’s astonishing election season — Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is a debut novel that introduces readers to 16-year-old Maribel who has recently immigrated to the United States with her parents in hopes that she will be able to receive better resources to help her deal with a traumatic brain injury. Surrounding Maribel and her family are a cast of characters supremely human and wholly familiar — Fito Angelino, an immigrant from Paraguay whose young dreams of boxing led him instead to becoming a landlord in Delaware; Benny Quinto, a Nicaraguan aspiring priest-turned-drug dealer who now works at Burger King; Nelia Zafón, a Puerto Rican immigrant with dreams of Broadway; and so many more.
22. The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
Mia and Lorrie Ann have been best friends all their lives — and like some of the best friendships, their lives couldn’t be more different from one another’s. While pregnant at 15, Mia is also dealing with her mother’s addiction and her inability to act as a positive role model in her younger brother’s life. Lorrie Ann, on the other hand, seems to have the perfect life — until their senior year of high school, when the girls suddenly seem to switch roles completely. Now Lorrie Ann is the one dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, and when it sends her seemingly-perfect life in all directions the girls begin to not only grow apart, but to question the stories they’d told each other about themselves their entire lives.
23. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
If you first fell in love with Roxane Gay for her essays in Bad Feminist — as I did — then you must add her novel, An Untamed State, to your TBR pile immediately. An Untamed State introduces readers to Mireille Duval Jameson, a young woman of privilege who has been kidnapped just steps from her own front door in Port au Prince, Haiti, by a group of men seeking revenge against the country’s elite and the corrupt government that serves them. And Mireille’s father refuses to pay the ransom money. A soul-rattling novel, An Untamed State explores how one life-altering event can split a life into two, from the perspective of a young woman tasked with putting the pieces together.
24. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Under the Udala Trees introduces readers to Ijeoma, a girl who is only 11-years-old when her father dies and her homeland of Nigeria erupts into civil war. As a result, her mother sends her away to live with relative strangers, and while grappling with her subsequent feelings of abandonment, Ijeoma also struggles with the realization that she is in love with another young girl — in a country and culture that makes such love practically impossible, no less. This breathtaking debut novel will take you through Ijeoma’s coming-of-age journey and into her adult life, as she learns hard lessons about love, prejudice, and her own identity.
25. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
After a childhood spent growing up in Brooklyn, New York, the remote village of Bird Hill, in Barbados, practically seems like another planet to sisters Phaedra and Dionne, sent there by their mother to live with their grandmother Hyacinth — a practitioner of both midwifery and Caribbean sorcery, of sorts. And if that’s not enough to get used to, the girls’ father suddenly reappears, after being absent for most of the sisters’ lives. With his arrival comes a difficult choice — return to the Brooklyn of their memories with a father they barely know, or remain in unfamiliar Barbados where they are only just starting to find a place for themselves.
26. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
This 2012 debut novel has now been adapted for film, and will hit theaters this September. Until then, you have the fabulous novel to lose yourself in. M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans tells the story of a young couple — Tom and Isabel — who take up residence in a remote lighthouse located miles off the Australian coast. Desperate for a family, the couple struggles with one miscarriage after another — until one day they discover a boat adrift in the ocean, with a dead man and a crying baby inside. Taking the baby as their own, Isabel and Tom raise her to her second birthday, when they decide to return to life on the mainland. There, they are forced to confront their decision to keep they baby, when they suddenly meet the woman who has been searching for her for years.
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