Strong women writers have produced an exciting line-up of novels this year, and it is no mean feat that so many of them are debuts.
From Caz Frear’s fast-paced crime novel, Sweet Little Lies, to Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, a thoughtful and funny debut about a deeply self-involved poet, the women in these empowering first novels are all survivors – of dark childhoods, of affairs with married men, of natural disasters – and they emerge at the end, a little older and wiser, but with plenty of hope and humour.
1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: £12.99, Scribner
Rachel Khong’s beautifully written coming-of-age debut tells the story of 30-year-old Ruth, who moves home for a year to help take care of her father who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The book moves gracefully between Ruth’s memories of Joel, her ex-boyfriend, and the present at home in the suburbs of San Francisco. The lack of fast-paced plot gives the book room to breathe. The modern, stream-of-consciousness effect is dreamy and funny: Theo, the new love interest, rattles off trivia that he learnt on the internet to combat insomnia; Ruth discovers her father’s notebooks of her childhood; and Ruth records her own observations of her father as his memory fades. Khong has an amazing ability to notice the quirky and colourful moments in life, and combines them to create a flawless narrative and a set of rounded, intriguing characters.
2. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney: £14.99, Faber & Faber
This much-hyped debut from Sally Rooney doesn’t disappoint. Frances, 21, a spoken word poet, lives the fashionable life in Dublin. Between attending book launches and typing poetry on her MacBook, she is struggling to decide what she wants to do in life and what her place in the world is. Some readers might be put off by the narcissistic millennials, but Rooney is aware and poking fun. The love story that develops between Frances, her best friend and a married couple, the four main characters, unravels after a group holiday in France, and Frances’ behaviour moves from self-involved to self-destructive. Rooney is an award-winning short story writer, and her debut novel has been compared to F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night.
3. Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear: £7.99, Bonnier Zaffre
Caz Frear’s funny, slickly-written debut is a crime novel about Cat Kinsella, a 26-year-old police detective who gets embroiled in a murder case that has sticky links with her own family. Unlike other plot-driven crime novels, Sweet Little Lies is written with panache and is kick-ass feminist, as well as laugh-out-loud funny. The characters/suspects are intriguing as they are often members of Cat’s family or people she grew up with in Ireland. At the end, Cat must face a decision – admit how much she knows and ruin her career or keep schtum and protect the family.
4. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: £12.99, HarperCollins
Gail Honeyman’s first book won the Scottish Book Trust First Chapter award and has topped multiple best-seller lists. Eleanor Oliphant has spent her childhood in foster care and is living in the shell of herself, working the nine-to-five in a Glasgow office and spending evenings at home, with no friends to talk to and nothing much to do. That all changes when an old man falls in the street. Along comes Raymond, the bumbling IT engineer at her work who invites her to the hospital to visit him, and Raymond and Eleanor develop a close friendship, with plenty of gaffes and hesitations along the way. Eleanor starts to change her way of looking at the world and how to open up about her past. Despite the grim-sounding circumstances, Eleanor’s voice is light and funny. Also, her weekly calls with crazy “Mummy” are not what the reader thinks they are. Any city dweller will relate to the premise of this book, based on urban loneliness and how a small kind act from a stranger can make a world of difference.
5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman: £16.99, Jonathan Cape
18-year-old Selin is a Turkish-American freshman at Harvard. She knows everything, or at least it seems that way, with the book unspooling a wondrous amount of trivia, but she also knows nothing, and it takes her the whole novel to realise it. The reader wanders along through her first year in Boston, meeting friends, laughing at the absurdities of people and teachers and language, and then we follow her through Europe over the summer and her six weeks teaching English in a Hungarian village. The love interest, a tall Hungarian student called Ivan, writes Selin mysterious messages which she can never quite understand. Similar to Conservations With Friends, Elif Batuman prods fun at her young narrator’s naivety, and the inability of her young characters to say simple things such as “I like you but I have a girlfriend”. Batuman, in seemingly writing a novel about nothing, has produced an incredibly complex, accurate and funny novel.
6. All The Good Things by Clare Fisher: £12.99, Viking
While Bethany is in prison, her therapist suggests she writes a list of all the good things in her life. Author Clare Fisher takes us back to Bethany’s unstable childhood, the friends that came and went, the relationship with a married man and how she tried to find her feet in London. The shift from past to present day is easy and graceful. Despite a grim background, there are many moments of levity, including Bethany’s boisterous friend Chantelle, her boss at the Odeon cinema, and Chantelle’s sidekick “chuckle sisters” with matching pony tails. Bethany’s voice is strong, even when she is struggling not to become a victim. The hints of the “bad thing” that she did, that she talks about to her therapist in prison, keep the reader hooked until the end, where we realise that certain women, no matter how hard they fight, have the odds stacked against them.
7. The Salt House by Lisa Duffy: £8.99, Touchstone
Lisa Duffy, a Curtis Brown writing course alumna, has done what few modern writers dare to do: write about a family dealing with grief – their youngest child has died, and we know this from the very start – and tell the story from different characters’ points of view. Thanks to a good plot, but not too much of it, we discover why Hope keeps her daughter’s ashes in the closet and we learn of the secrets of her husband Jack’s past, which he has tried so hard to bury. In a closely-knit community such as this fishing village in Maine, there are enough memories and connections to last the entire book. Duffy has a great talent for making the ordinary scenes in life into a fascinating insight into grief, a crumbling marriage, and the child-parent relationship.
8. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter: £9.99, Pan Macmillan
The End We Start From is an eerie, dystopian novel set in London during a flood, forcing residents to evacuate. A woman, who remains nameless, has just given birth to a boy, Z, and in the chaos of natural disaster and refugee camps are separated from her husband, R. The small family sails with new friends to an island and only hear news of the mainland via radio. The book is only 17,000 words, and not a word has been wasted. It is sparse and poetic, with minimal punctuation. The main theme is motherhood, and the strong bond the woman has with Z, despite her predicament. It is beautifully written, although sometimes phrases like the “fruity, post-coital crackle” of radio static will roll off the tongue rather than give the reader a sense of meaning. (What’s more, the film rights have already been sold to Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company.)
9. Mad (Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know Trilogy) by Chloé Esposito: £12.99, Michael Joseph
Chloe Esposito’s first book in a trilogy is like The Devil Wears Prada – fast-paced with staccato-like sentences, but funnier and more readable. Alvina Knightly is fired from her job and returns to her London flat where she lives with two slobs (and her vibrator, Mr Dick). Her identical twin, Beth, married to a gorgeous Italian man, invites her to their villa in Sicily to visit the family and their son, Ernie. Little does Alvina know that very soon they will be swapping lives. The book is awash with swear-words, blood and violence, and is thoroughly over the top, but that’s what makes it great. The trilogy sold for more than £2m and Hollywood is already knocking.
10. Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic: £14.99, Pushkin Press
This debut is not for the faint-hearted. It explores big ideas of love and death and obsession in the internet age, but there is little concrete plotting, and the chapters have a slight stream-of-consciousness feel. Alice Hare is a disturbed young woman who spends several months in New York with her dying grandmother, but quickly becomes distracted by Mizuko, an older Japanese-American woman who has an obsession with social media. Alice leaves her grandmother in a nursing home and ingratiates herself with Mizuko and her life, making Alice an outcast in her own family. There are moments of brilliance and keen observation. Sudjic has written a very good book, but had it been cut down by 150 pages it could have been a masterpiece.
The Verdict: Debut novels by women authors
Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is a show-stealer, due to its simplicity, conciseness (a crisp 208 pages) and beautiful observations of character and setting. A well-crafted and very good book.
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