This year I noticed something really cool was happening in literature — something that I can honestly say has never happened (at least to me) before: all of my absolute favorite reads of the year were debut novels from 2016. Now, based on all that 2016’s debut fiction had to offer, it’s probably no surprise that some of the genre’s newest authors became some of my own newest faves. The debut and emerging writers were killin’ it this year.
2016’s standout debut authors herald from all over the United States and the world, and they took some serious risks — and tackled some even more serious themes — in their books this year. I traveled back to the 1999 WTO protests, to the scene of the Manson murders, to post-World War II Japan, and to 18th-century Ghana through the debut fiction I read this year. I was asked to deepen my knowledge of racism and sexism, of political violence and of nuclear warfare, of drug addiction and familial tensions, and more. I was led, by these debut writers, into stories that opened my heart, challenged my mind, and expanded the limitations of my own compassion for human struggles and spirit. It was truly a banner year for debut novels.
Here are 13 of the best debut novels of 2016. Be sure to check ‘em out soon, because all of 2017’s best debuts are just around the corner, and your TBR pile can only stack so high, am I right?
1 'People Who Knew Me' by Kim Hooper
Debut novelist Kim Hooper’s novel People Who Knew Me was one of my favorite novels of the year, for more than a few reasons. The novel tells the story of Emily Morris — a woman who has lost herself in a failing marriage and a passionate but complicated affair, who suddenly finds herself pregnant, and ends up faking her own death after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Alternating between her past in New York City, and her present in California, I expected this novel to pull me in and break my heart a little; but what readers won’t expect are the surprising twists Emily’s (aka: Connie’s) story takes when she (and you) least expect it.
2 'The Translation of Love' by Lynne Kutsukake
Lynne Kutsukake’s mesmerizing debut novel takes readers to post-World War II Tokyo, where 13-year-old Aya Shimamura and her father have been repatriated following their release from a Canadian internment camp. Aya is fluent in English, and struggles to assimilate to Japanese language and culture — but when her classmate Fumi Tanaka realizes that Aya might be able to use her English skills to help find her missing older sister, this newfound friendship takes them on an adventure through the Ginza district of American-occupied Tokyo that puts both girls in danger. The Translation of Love tells a compelling and poignant story about how the effects of war reverberate through cultures for generations, and about the transcendent power of love.
3 'Behold the Dreamers' by Imbolo Mbue
Anyone who was old enough to be directly affected by the 2008 financial crisis will remember the desperation felt by all those who suddenly found themselves buried beneath the economic collapse. Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, explores the devastating ripple effects of that economic collapse, telling the story of two Cameroonian immigrants, Jende and Neni Jonga, who move to New York City in search of a better life for their family and wind up employed by a family who loses everything during the crisis. Behold the Dreamers asks tough questions about the American Dream and challenges assumptions about race, class, immigration, marriage, and family.
4 'The Nix' by Nathan Hill
At 600-plus pages, Nathan Hill’s The Nix is no small feat of a novel. Told from alternating perspectives and experimenting with a variety of writing styles, this book tells the story of assistant English professor and failing writer Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a man haunted by the mother who abandoned him at 11-years-old and whom is suddenly returned to him via the evening news, where she’s featured for participating in a protest that involved throwing rocks at conservative republican presidential candidate. These 15 minutes of fame result in Samuel attempting to salvage his writing career by writing a book about his mother — a tell-all that not only tests Samuel’s capacity to sell out the woman who gave him life, but also gives him a chance to answer all the questions he’d been holding in his heart for a lifetime.
5 'The Girls' by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s The Girls was another debut novel I absolutely lost myself in this year — masterful storytelling joins forces with a plot inspired by one of the eeriest and most infamous stories in American cultural history: that of the Manson family cult, and the Manson murders of 1969. Evie Boyd is a 14-year-old girl who is drawn into a Manson-like cult, attracted to the free love and un-repressed attitudes of the women who flock to it. But the cult’s leader, the Charles Manson-inspired Russell, has a dark and disturbing side — one that will change everyone’s lives, including Evie’s, forever.
6 'Problems' by Jade Sharma
I could not be more obsessed with Jade Sharma’s voice on the page, and if her debut novel, Problems, is any indication, readers will be looking forward to even more badass writing from her in the future (I know I already am.) Sharma’s main character, Maya, is a young bookstore employee with a troubling heroin habit and a penchant for sharing more information than those around her might be comfortable with. She isn’t energized by her husband, her elderly lover, or her life in New York City — and she isn’t going to change until she’s ready to do it by herself, for herself. Offering an unromanticized and relatable portrayal of addiction and rock bottom, Problems is an eye opening novel with an antihero you won’t be able to help but love.
7 'Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size' of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Blending gorgeous prose with political themes, Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, ventures back to 1990, and the WTO protests that rocked Seattle, Washington. The novel revolves through the perspectives of a vivid and deeply human cast of characters, from Victor, the main character and a homeless 19-year-old who is struggling to understand the injustices of the world and his role in them, to Victor’s father, a Seattle police chief who struggles to balance his moral instincts with his job requirements. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is a kaleidoscopic and chaotic literary debut that will simultaneously haunt you and lift your spirits.
8 'The Guineveres' by Sarah Domet
Another debut novel that explores coming-of-age journeys in the most unlikely of settings, Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres tells the shared story of four different young women named Guinevere, who, after being abandoned by their parents, spend their teenage years living in a remote convent entirely isolated from the outside world. But when a group of severely wounded and unidentified World War II soldiers are brought to the convent to receive medical care, the four Guineveres become obsessed with the boys, leading them to take actions that will change each of their young lives in unexpected and devastating ways. Domet has constructed a complete picture of the resilience required of all young women as they grow up, regardless of unique circumstance.
9 'The Nest' by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Sibling relationships can be some of the most influential and significant of your life — and as anyone who has siblings of their own knows: they can also be some of the most challenging. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest dives headfirst into the fraught and complex world of brothers and sisters, introducing readers to the Plumb family: four siblings who have been waiting their whole lives for a trust fund from their parents to kick in, and who are suddenly faced with the fact that their brother Leo’s recent DUI and stint in rehab may have cost them all the money they’d been counting on. Funny and honest, Sweeney’s debut novel is a story about family and finances, and how oftentimes the two are better left separate.
10 'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing, was easily one of the most powerful books of 2016,quickly making the New York Times bestseller list with its tale of two sisters, Effia and Esi, who were born to the same father, simultaneously, but in different African villages, and grow up unknown to one another. One is sold into slavery, while the other marries an Englishman and lives a decidedly different life. From a civil war in 18th-century Ghana to the urban sidewalks of 20th-century Harlem, this novel will take you around the world, into the disparate experiences of Effia and Esi and those of their descendants, depicting how two lives that began so close together can diverge in such extreme ways.
11 'The Atomic Weight of Love' by Elizabeth J. Church
Elizabeth J. Church’s novel, The Atomic Weight of Love was one of the quieter books of 2016, and as a result I don’t think this debut got nearly as much fanfare as it deserved.The Atomic Weight of Love introduces readers to the young and brilliant ornithologist Meridian Wallace, who sacrifices her own education and career when her scientist-fiancé is sent to work in New Mexico, as a key player in a secret government project (one that will later become the atomic bomb that ends World War II and changes the planet forever.) Alone and bored, Meridian takes 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 develops 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 made for their families, in the pre-Lean In days.
12 'The Mothers' by Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s debut, The Mothers, was both a New York Times bestseller and an NPR Best Book this year. The novel introduces readers to Nadia Turner, a high school student whose young life has been marked by incomparable violence. Still grappling with her mother’s recent suicide, and confronted with her own unexpected teen pregnancy — with the pastor’s son Luke — Nadia is thrust into a life of shame-filled secrecy, pressured by her church and community. Years later, Nadia and Luke, and Nadia’s best friend Aubrey, find themselves caught in an impossible love triangle — one that threatens to dismantle the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other their entire adult lives — and they begin to question whether they made the right decisions, as teenagers, in the first place.
13 'The Mortifications' by Derek Palacio
Readers meet the Encarnacións — the family at the heart of Derek Palacio’s stunning debut novel The Mortifications — as they are torn apart by their recent immigration to the United States. Uxbal, the family patriarch, is left behind by his wife and children, Soledad, Isabel, and Ulises, who flee Cuba without him, rejecting the Cuban community of Miami and moving to Hartford, Connecticut — a landscape as different from Cuba as one could be. Each begins their life anew in different ways, flourishing and failing in equal measure. But when they find themselves called back to Cuba, they must decide if their roots to their homeland can truly be broken.