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The best debut novels to have on your radar

Need a new author get stuck into? You won’t be able to put these down

Emma Lee-Potter
Thursday 29 April 2021 13:45 BST
If their debuts are anything to go by there’s a lot more to come from these talented authors
If their debuts are anything to go by there’s a lot more to come from these talented authors (iStock/The Independent )

Thousands of would-be novelists dream of writing a bestseller. They sign up for creative writing courses, spend months poring over their manuscripts and eventually submit their work to literary agents and publishers.

But even so, only a handful get published and of those who do, only a tiny percentage become top-flight authors or manage to earn a decent living from their writing. A survey of UK writers published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in 2018 found that the median income of a professional author was under £10,500 a year. As the ALCS said at the time: “Full-time writers are still very much the exception rather than the norm and we are still seeing that writers need to develop ‘portfolio’ careers to make ends meet.”

However, some novelists enjoy huge success with their debut books and go on to have stellar careers – writers like Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Sally Rooney (Conversations with Friends) and Gail Honeyman (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) to name just a few.

With that in mind, we’ve selected some of the best debut novels of recent months, including a story that switches between 1960s Uganda and present-day London, a tale about a wealthy family who lose everything overnight and the account of a social media influencer whose casual words come back to haunt her.

The following novels span many genres but they are enthralling, original and grabbed our attention from the very first chapter. If their debuts are anything to go by there’s a lot more to come from these talented authors.

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‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean, published by HarperCollins

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The setting of Abigail Dean’s first novel sounds grim, but it’s such a powerful book that it’s impossible to put down. Lex Gracie, the “Girl A” of the title, is one of seven abused and neglected children who grew up in a home dubbed the House of Horrors. Known as “the girl who escaped”, Lex is now a successful lawyer in New York. She returns to the UK when her mother dies in jail, leaving Lex and her siblings the family home. Lex wants to turn the house into a force for good but first, she needs to revisit the traumas of the past. One of the biggest fiction debuts of 2021, Girl A has been optioned by Sony and deserves every one of the stellar accolades it has received.

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‘We are All Birds of Uganda’ by Hafsa Zayyan, published by #Merky Books

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Books that flip between different timelines are sometimes hard to follow, especially when you prefer one narrative to the other. But that’s not the case with Hafsa Zayyan’s fine novel, which moves smoothly between 1960s Uganda and present-day London. Hasan is struggling to run his family business following the death of his first wife when a new regime seizes power in Uganda and a wave of rising prejudice threatens everything he’s worked so hard for. Young hot-shot lawyer Sameer is on the verge of clinching his dream promotion when he’s summoned back to his family home in Leicester by an unexpected tragedy. This story of racial tensions and generational divides was one of the two winners of last year’s inaugural #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize.

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‘Common Ground’ by Naomi Ishiguro, published by Tinder Press

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The first novel from Naomi Ishiguro, the daughter of Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, is a bittersweet coming-of-age story that captured our imagination right from the outset. Thirteen-year-old Stan has just started at a new school, where he’s bullied mercilessly by his peers. Things aren’t much better at home, where he and his mum are struggling to cope with the aftermath of his father’s death. But then he meets Charlie, a confident, clever Romany boy who teaches Stan to stand up for himself. The pair eventually go their separate ways but nine years later their paths cross by chance in London and they discover their roles have reversed. This tale of friendship in a divided world is thought-provoking and beautifully observed.

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‘Greenwich Park’ by Katherine Faulkner, published by Raven Books

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Fast-paced and addictive, Katherine Faulkner’s debut novel encompasses pregnancy, female friendship and dark secrets. Helen is expecting her first child after a series of miscarriages and turns up at her first antenatal class. Her husband Daniel is due to join her, along with her brother and his pregnant wife, but none of them show up. Instead, Helen finds herself sitting next to bold, brash single mum-to-be Rachel, who is determined to be her new best friend but isn’t all that she seems. Faulkner wrote Greenwich Park while she was on maternity leave and it’s a cracker – a top-notch psychological thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat till the very end.

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‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart, published by Picador

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If you haven’t readShuggie Bain yet don’t delay any longer. This exceptional debut won the 2020 Booker Prize and is now out in paperback. Set in 1980s Glasgow, it’s the heartbreaking tale of Agnes Bain, a proud, beautiful mother-of-three and her youngest son Shuggie, who desperately tries to save his mum as she slides into alcoholism. Compelling and desperately sad, it’s a stunning portrait of addiction, poverty, courage and love – and Shuggie himself is a character who will stay in your mind long after you have finished reading. 

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‘The Best Things’ by Mel Giedroyc, published by Headline Review

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TV star Mel Giedroyc’s story of a wealthy family who has everything but lose it all in spectacular fashion is fun and very readable, with larger-than-life characters, laugh-out-loud scenarios and a plot that speeds along like a runaway train. Sally Parker lives a life of luxury with her hedge fund manager husband Frank, their children and seven dogs in a lavish, electric-gated Surrey mansion. But when Frank’s business collapses Sally realises she’s going to have to fight back and save the family fortunes once and for all.

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‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan, published by Jonathan Cape

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There are no two ways about it – Megan Nolan is a wonderful writer. She’s only 30 but thanks to her essays and journalism she’s already being hailed as one of the most talented writers of her generation. Her first novel is a blisteringly honest tale of romantic obsession, set in Dublin and told in short, sharp chapters. It follows the relationship of the young woman narrator and Ciaran, the most beautiful man she’s ever set eyes on but who turns out to be cold, cruel and unfathomable. Nolan’s book is so readable that it’s easy to forget how stunning her writing is. If you adored Sally Rooney’s Normal People you’ll love this.

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‘Luster’ by Raven Leilani, published by Picador

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Longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Luster is painful, moving and funny in equal measure. Edie is a young black woman in New York who is sleeping with all the wrong men and has failed at the only pursuit that means anything to her – painting. But when she starts dating a middle-aged white man she suddenly finds herself living in his suburban New Jersey house with his wife and their adopted child. Raven Leilani is brilliant at weaving Edie’s present-day life and her harrowing childhood into a gripping narrative.

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‘People Like Her’ by Ellery Lloyd, published by Mantle

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This debut novel is a whip-smart read that lifts the lid on the world of social media influencers – the celebrities of our time. Told through the eyes of Mamabare, alias fashion editor turned Instagram sensation Emmy Jackson, and her novelist husband Dan, it traces the devastating fall-out when a disillusioned follower vows to take revenge for Emmy’s careless words. Ellery Lloyd is the pseudonym for London-based husband-and-wife writing duo Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos and while the story is slightly far-fetched in places it’s a real pageturner.

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‘Nightingale’ by Marina Kemp, published by Fourth Estate

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Marina Kemp’s assured first novel is a delight; a slow burner that transports the reader to the claustrophobic world of France profonde. Marguerite Demers is only 24 when she leaves Paris to work as a live-in nurse in a sleepy village in the south of France. Her new employer is the cantankerous Jerome Lanvier, an old man who is estranged from his three sons and dying alone in his remote house. It doesn’t take long for the villagers to start speculating about Marguerite and her reasons for taking the job. The paperback edition is out on April 28.

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The verdict: Debut novels

It’s a tough choice but Girl A by Abigail Dean is the book that we can’t stop thinking about, harrowing though its subject matter is. But if you haven’t read Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain we can’t recommend it more highly – and the same goes for Megan Nolan’s extraordinary Acts of Desperation. Stuart and Nolan are both superb writers and we can’t wait to read their next books.

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For more books to lose yourself in, read our round-up of the 9 best romance books that are too brilliant to put down

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