Best Books of 2017 – Fiction Debuts!
2017 was an encouragingly prosperous year for fiction debuts. First novels in the 21st century are usually the very frailest of hot-house flowers, seeded exclusively in their authors’ family histories, given form by their authors’ personal details, and hand-raised with delicate care in the moist air and steady sunlight of the world’s 1.4 million academic writing workshops. First novels in the 21st century are, in other words, typically insufferable. So the bumper-crop of stand-out debuts this year was cause for celebration, as was the quality that ran through most of them: an assured willingness on the part of their authors to let stories flow into deeper channels – a willingness to embrace subtlety even when, especially when, those stories don’t seem very subtle at all. It’s always a good sign when I have trouble limiting a list to ten winners, but here they are:
10. Live from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaighte (Simon & Schuster) – On its multifaceted surface levels, this debut novel is about a cast of characters complicatedly connected in various ways to Dalia, an Iraqi refugee trapped in the Egypt of 2011, an Egypt roiling with revolution and chaos. But as with so many of the debut novels on our list this year, Live from Cairo just keeps piling complexity onto complexity, gradually creating a story that’s both dark and, with surprisingly and delightful regularity, darkly funny.
9 Chemistry by Weike Wang (Knopf) – My pointed rant about the slow and apparently unopposed in-creep of YA novels to the world of adult literary fiction will have to wait until the new year. The folks at Knopf decided, for whatever reason, to market Weike Wang’s YA debut about a hapless young female chemistry graduate student blundering into love as adult fiction, and the story Wang tells is so sharply and wonderfully done that I’m hardly going to omit it on a technicality, however troubling!
8 The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Matthews (Little, Brown) – Long before I read the first page of this big, brawling historical novel about a charismatic Irish immigrant to Jazz Age New York, I had my guard up, for two reasons: a) the premise is a veritable Petri dish for breeding cliches, and b) they’re cliches I tend to like. But the sheer confidence of the storytelling here won me over, and is so often the case with this year’s debuts, all the book’s easy-seeming decisions steadily complicated themselves.
7 Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Every creative choice this book makes should have annoyed me. In tracing the generational pathos of a Palestinian family through its multiple immigration crises (they’re uprooted first from their home in Nablus, then from Kuwait City, and eventually from a virtual Baedeker of places), the author name-checks so many hot-button issues that her book should have shown up on a very different Stevereads list. But the searing intelligence and sharp prose Hala Alyan brings to her story made me forget all those reservations.
6 Sonata in K by Karen An-hwei Lee (Ellipsis) – This debut novella about seeming Kafka-clone called Kafka-san and the slightly befuddled chauffeur who introduces him to modern-day Los Angeles begins surreal and just keeps getting more surreal as the misadventures continue to twist and turn, always filtered through the literary prism of Kafka’s still-baffling prose. The thought-provoking low-burn hilarity that results is reminiscent of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back but has a weirdness all its own.
5 Our Little Racket by Angelica Baker (Ecco) – The financial meltdown of 2008 is the fulcrum on which this generous – and wonderfully sardonic – debut turns; a wealthy Connecticut family is torn apart when its patriarch is suddenly revealed to be at the heart of a scandal and all the women in his life must suddenly scramble to re-assess their lives. Baker evokes these several interconnected worlds with an assurance that’s downright startling in a debut.
4 Bed-Stuy is Burning by Brian Platzer (Atria) – Like so many books on this list, there’s enormously more to this novel about the upheavals accompanying the gentrification of a New York neighborhood than what appears on the surface. Platzer works counter-intuitive subtlety into every layer of his story and keeps the whole intricate clockwork of it at an arm’s length that reminded me of the great, forgotten Budd Schulberg. An intensely memorable debut.
3 The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis (Pegasus Books) – Talk about a memorable debut! I read Janet Ellis’ debut The Butcher’s Hook in its US debut and was beguiled the whole time by the deepeningly perverse story of sheltered 18th-century London ingénue Anne and her disastrously stubborn choice of husband. Ellis warps and twists her story in delightful and intensely controlled ways, until all the book’s opening conventions are exploded in ways that are both dark and oddly playful.
2 Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar (Little, Brown) – The basic action of this slim novel – a Czech cosmonaut aboard a spaceship to Venus has either picked up an inquisitive extraterrestrial guest or hallucinates that he has – is, like so many of the books on this list, deceptively simple. Kalfar weaves deeper resonances into the thoughts and worries of Jakub Procházka than I would have thought possible, until the very simplicity of the story becomes a kind of ongoing commentary.
1 See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Grove Atlantic) – The best debut work of fiction in a year very much crowded with strong debuts was this historical novel about the notorious 1892 tragedy in which the parents of Lizzie Borden were found butchered in the family home. Lizzie herself stood trial for the murders, but this beautiful, richly disturbing novel is concerned only with the living Borden household – and the unexpected darknesses that might have laid the groundwork for the killings. It’s a familiar refrain from the list this time around, but even so: I had to keep reminding myself that this is a debut novel.