Every year thousands of debuts novels are published in the UK, struggling to get noticed by readers, reviewers and bloggers, and desperate to make that all important good first impression.
I hadn’t, in all honesty, ever thought much about whether or not a book was an author’s first until my own debut novel was published earlier this year. Having your first book on the shelves makes you inordinately (some might say obsessively) interested in the trials and tribulations of other debuts: the six-figure publishing deals, the PR frenzies, the reviews and the sales.
But once all the noise has died down, which are the debuts that will really stand the test of time? Who are the authors with long and successful careers ahead of them? Which are the truly standout debut novels of 2014?
Here are seven I think are genuinely unmissable.
Wake - Anna Hope (Doubleday)
Wake follows the story of three women in the aftermath of the First World War coming to terms with the grief, shock and trauma of their losses, their seemingly disparate lives connected in ways only the reader will ever know. It’s a remarkable debut: intricately researched and beautifully written, with the kind of restrained yet emotional prose one expects from a seasoned author. Its characters, too, have a depth and quiet tragedy one rarely finds in debut fiction. In this centenary year commemorating the outbreak of war, there’ve been many novels about the conflict: Wake is without doubt one of the best.
Shotgun Lovesongs - Nickolas Butler (Picador)
Butler’s debut tells the story of four friends growing up, growing apart and - in some cases - finding one another again in Wisconsin. It’s a novel which gently and expertly reels you into their world, their friendships and their rivalries until suddenly you’re so immersed in their community you never want to leave. Butler’s writing is sparse - much like the emotional competence of most of his characters - and it’s this economy which help make it such a powerful read. It’s no surprise the novel has already been optioned by Fox Searchlight: it’s a novel crying out for the big screen treatment.
Man at the Helm - Nina Stibbe (Penguin)
Nina Stibbe became a literary sensation in 2013 when she published Love, Nina, her brilliantly funny and critically acclaimed account - told through letters to her sister - of her time nannying in London in the 1980s. This year she followed up with her debut novel which firmly places her as one of the country’s most talented comic writers. Man at the Helm has been described as “Adrian Move meets I Capture the Castle” and with good reason: the story of three siblings coping with the eccentricities of their newly divorced mother under the watchful gaze of a 1970s rural community contains some of the funniest writing I’ve read in years. But what makes Stibbe’s debut so special is the warm heart beating at the centre of the story: these aren’t characters you simply laugh at, or with; they’re characters you want to take under your wing, take home and give a good hearty meal to. And that combination of heart and humour is an accomplishment for any author: for a debut novelist it’s remarkable.
Chicurel’s coming of age story, set in a small, downbeat community on Long Island in 1972, tells the story of a group of friends on the cusp of adulthood coming to terms with the past, the future and the very present backdrop of the Vietnam War. It’s a novel which viscerally evokes a time and a place so powerfully that when the various threads of story culminate in the final chapter (and the significance of the book’s title finally makes itself known) it also has the power to break your heart. It’s a novel that reminded me of Philip Roth’s later works and I can’t really think of higher praise than that.
A Song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray (Hutchinson)
Cary’s Bray’s tender story of a Mormon family coming to terms with the death of one of their children was one of the most highly anticipated debuts of the year, and it didn’t disappoint. Alternating points of view in a novel are difficult to pull off, but as Bray switches from one family member’s perspective to another, the voices are so clear and so well-rounded that it makes for a seamless, emotionally powerful read. Amidst the grief, Bray manages to inject moments of humour but this is ultimately a novel which will pull - adeptly - at your heart strings.
The Accident - CL Taylor (Avon)
CL Taylor had a previous incarnation as a romantic fiction novelist but this - her first psychological thriller - places her squarely as one of the most exciting genre writers to emerge this year. The Accident tells the story of Sue’s quest to find out why her daughter stepped in front of a bus, which Sue is convinced wasn’t an accident. As she’s forced to delve into her own past and face the demons she thought she’d long since left behind, Taylor creates the kind of suspense which has you turning the pages until the early hours of the morning. A brilliantly paced thriller and well-deserved bestseller.
The Shock of the Fall - Nathan Filer (The Borough Press)
You could (legitimately) argue that it’s cheating to have Nathan Filer’s much-lauded and award-winning debut on this list since the hardback was actually published in 2013 (the paperback was Jan 2014). But Filer’s story about a young schizophrenic man struggling with the guilt about a single incident in his childhood is undoubtedly the most exceptional debut to emerge for years. If you’ve somehow managed to get this far without having read it, just go and buy it now.
This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post