August 22, 2022
The best debuts so far in 2022
As we reach the end of summer, we look back on the first-time novelists and memoirists who have impressed us the most so far this year.
Perhaps it’s too soon to say which books we’ll look back on in 50 years as the ones that defined a generation, but Sarah Thankam Mathews’ debut, a close-to-perfect coming-of-age romp, is surely a contender. Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, it’s one of those rare novels that feels just like life, its characters so specific in their desires and experiences that you’re sure you’ve met them—or maybe you’re about to. Yet Mathews also captures some unnamable, essential thing about being a 20-something struggling through work and love and late-stage capitalism in the United States in the mid-2000s. In the manner of books that stay with you forever, All This Could Be Different is a singular story that extends beyond itself.
At 22, Sneha graduates from college into a tanked economy. She immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, but her parents have since returned to India, leaving Sneha alone. She lands an entry-level job at a consulting firm in Milwaukee and starts fresh in a new city, where she encounters financial successes and catastrophes, makes friends and falls into a heady romance. She relates these experiences in an unforgettable narrative voice: dryly funny, self-analytical, a little sarcastic and full of heart.
Though Sneha is preoccupied with her girlfriend for much of the book, this is actually a story about friendship. Sneha’s new friend Tig, a slightly older Black genderfluid lesbian, tells her that friendship takes a lot of work, and over the course of the novel, we get to see Sneha and Tig do that work. It’s breathtaking to witness this slow and painful process. Over dinners and phone calls and meltdowns, long drives and impromptu parties, Sneha, whose past traumas have made her unwilling to trust others, who longs for love even as she shies away from it, learns what true intimacy requires: to see and be seen.
Lives are made up of so many ordinary moments, so many conflicting emotions, so many messes—some world-shattering, some mundane. It’s all here in this funny, vibrant, heartbreaking book: the ache of new love and the pleasures of good food, what it’s like having money and what it’s like losing it, microaggressions and casual racism and radical politics. There are drunken mistakes, childhood wounds, good sex, bad sex, the American dream, queer love, an explotitive economy and the bite of Midwestern winters. And of course, the pressures and expectations of being a first-generation Asian American immigrant.
Through it all, there’s the steady pulse of friendship and the quiet work of building a family—all the beautiful details that unfold along one woman’s journey to wholeness and home.
Christian mystics are a point of obsession for the hero of Tess Gunty’s debut novel. “They were spectacularly unusual,” Blandine gushes early in The Rabbit Hutch. They loved suffering, she says. “Mad for it.”
She’s especially interested in Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, polymath, composer and doctor who constantly played up her femininity to make herself less of a threat to male members of the clergy. As the novel opens, we learn that Blandine, inspired by her 12th-century hero, will “exit her body.”
But before readers fall in step with Blandine’s miraculous, possibly ominous ascension, Gunty first draws us into the years leading up to this event, and into the world of the Rabbit Hutch (officially called La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex), an apartment building in Vacca Vale, Indiana.
A Midwestern crossroads that’s limping along after the collapse of the Zorn Automobiles empire, Vacca Vale is a fictional stand-in for South Bend. In a matter of decades, Midwestern gloom has slipped into doom, and like many small towns, Vacca Vale (which is Latin for “goodbye, cow!”) has been earmarked for a heavily marketed “revitalization plan,” which everyone knows translates to “demolishing your town’s one great thing and replacing it with luxury condos.”
Blandine is our guiding light as we navigate this darkening mood. A former foster kid who’s now living in the Rabbit Hutch with three roommates, Blandine is a daring, defiant young woman who’s searching for divinity with scorching ferocity. Despite her persistence, she has not gone unscathed: She dropped out of high school after a complicated, crushing relationship with her charismatic theater teacher, and Gunty’s navigation of this trauma is one of the novel’s quietest strengths. Blandine’s experience is nothing less than a catastrophe hemmed in on all sides by the forces of normalization. After all, as she points out, a 17-year-old girl is considered to be within the age of consent by the state of Indiana.
Blandine is the core of The Rabbit Hutch, but if she were a cathedral, her two flying buttresses would be Joan and Moses. Joan, a lonely older woman who also lives in the Rabbit Hutch, is employed by an obituary website. Her job is to delete comments that disparage the dead, so she must remove a response from Moses on his mother’s obituary. (“THIS WHOLE #OBITUARY IS A BOLD-FACED LIE,” his comment begins.) To punish Joan for this act of censorship, Moses flies to Vacca Vale to exact his special form of retribution: He will cover himself from head to toe in the goo found in glow sticks, break into Joan’s apartment and dance around in the dark to frighten her.
Alongside these three characters, we hear from a bunch of additional folks, and as Gunty introduces each new voice, she makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have. She draws us along with rapturous glee while layering her symbolism so thick that the story should, by all rights, drown in it. But The Rabbit Hutch never loses focus thanks to Blandine, who has a kind of literary superpower: She’s aware of her place in the story, points out Gunty’s metaphors, arches a brow at the symbols and has something to say about all of it. This isn’t to suggest that the novel’s fourth wall is broken, but it does feel wafer-thin, just as the veil between the divine and the corporeal seem as gauzy as a worn T-shirt.
“We’re all just sleepwalking,” Blandine says to Joan. “I want to wake up. That’s my dream: to wake up.” As she moves toward wakefulness, Blandine becomes no less than a bona fide contemporary mystic, cultivating her own sense of belief and solidifying her existence as vital enough to subsist. Redemption is possible, and Gunty’s novel consecrates this noble search.
The Book Eaters, Sunyi Dean’s debut, is a dark, haunting fantasy that follows Devon Fairweather, a Book Eater who subsists on ink and paper and the knowledge it provides her. The Book Eaters, or ‘eaters, live on the fringes of human society, and were it not for the special, fang-like teeth that they unsheathe before a literary meal, they would look like ordinary people. Devon has always detested the staunch traditions of her isolated clan, and The Book Eaters jumps back and forth in time as she tries to forge her own path.
One of the most memorable and haunting elements of Dean’s world is how Book Eater society is structured around elements of Arthurian legend that are used to justify patriarchal, tyrannical rule. The young Devon lives a sheltered life as a Princess. Female Book Eaters are rare, and she is expected to marry early and promptly give birth to more of their kind. While her brothers eat books about politics, history and academics, she is limited to the same old fairy tales time and time again. Knights maintain order and govern the Dragons, who are born as Mind Eaters, unpredictable individuals who constantly crave human souls. Drugs keep their hunger at bay and force them to submit to their handlers’ orders.
Devon has always seen through the facade of the happily ever afters she consumes, and when she gives birth to a Mind Eater son, Cai, she realizes she is the only person who can save him from becoming a Dragon. In the present timeline, Devon and the now 5-year-old Cai have escaped the ‘eaters, but Devon is struggling to keep him under control and out of the Knights’ grasp while she searches for a way that they can both be free for good.
Dean fully invests readers in Devon’s struggles, both as a girl attempting to prise tiny snatches of freedom from a patriarchal society and as an adult mother frantic to protect her son. The Book Eaters‘ depiction of the sacrifices and joys of motherhood is particularly nuanced, grounding the fantasy elements of the story in the relationship between Devon and Cai. And Dean expertly expands the scope of the story to explore even more characters’ experiences, such as the other ‘eater women’s oppression and loneliness, Devon’s friend Yarrow’s isolation as an asexual person in the procreation-obsessed ‘eater society and Cai’s pain at being viewed as a monster.
The Book Eaters is a far cry from the fairy tales Devon consumes: It is a winding, harrowing, deliciously nightmarish story of people taking control of their bodies and destinies after generations of repression and abuse.
When considering the history of what is now known as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, there is a saying among Mexican Americans: “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.” It’s a reminder that claims to territory and citizenship rights predate the current boundary between Mexico and the U.S. It’s a rallying cry to tell the true history of American lands and the people who originally belonged on them. With the rise of Indigenous voices in the mainstream, that history is finally beginning to be recognized for its complexity and vitality, its literary power and potential.
Oscar Hokeah’s debut, Calling for a Blanket Dance, tells the story of Ever Geimausaddle through generations of his family. Before the novel even begins, Hokeah provides readers with a family tree, preparing them for the importance of blood ties in the story ahead. Each chapter belongs to a different leaf on the tree, and from these many perspectives, we see Ever grow from an infant into a man, eventually raising his own kids in the strange double bind of Indigeneity. After all, when your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family?
As Ever comes into his full self, we see the impact that his family members have on each other, shaping the ways they live and love. In the opening scene, for example, Ever’s mother, Turtle, takes Ever’s father, Everardo, and their 6-month-old son across Texas and into Mexico in an attempt to rescue her husband from his addiction to alcohol and remind him of his heritage. From the love languages of food and manual labor, to the easy manner in which Everardo tells lies, this scene is the foundation for Ever’s life and his later abilities to parent his own children.
Hokeah’s prose is punchy and descriptive, filled with Native American phrases and words that come naturally to the characters. This blending of languages is still uncommon in contemporary fiction, but the current Indigenous literary and cultural renaissance promises that more and more voices will grow this singularity into a rich multitude. With television shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” attracting critical and popular attention, it seems that this resurgence is only getting started.
But of course, renaissance and resurgence are the wrong words to use here. Hokeah, who is of Mexican heritage as well as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, shows that this tradition has been here the whole time, evolving and surviving. It’s the lines in the sand—what we call borders—that are new. Why should we act like these lines are valid and the people are not? Calling for a Blanket Dance proves that the people are more real than anything.
Isaac Fitzgerald grabs readers’ attention with the title of his memoir—Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional—and never lets go. He’s a mesmerizing storyteller who deploys unexpected delights from his very first line: “My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.” Not only that, but they “met at divinity school, which is a pretty funny way to start an affair.”
Fitzgerald’s raucous life started in low-income housing in Boston’s South End. In the soup kitchen that he frequented, he was “surrounded by stories of the highest comedy and the deepest tragedy, by the sounds of pealing laughter and suffering silence.” True to that upbringing, he fills the 12 essays in Dirtbag, Massachusetts with heaping helpings of humor, joy, pain, sorrow, grace and insight. Throughout, Fitzgerald writes in carefully chosen prose that reveals “just enough that you know it wasn’t pretty.” The topics range from his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church to life in an old mill town in central Massachusetts where he endured his father’s violence and his mother’s mania. Despite all of this, his parents instilled him with a deep love of literature, and his education continued when he applied to a nearby boarding school as a means of escaping his home life.
Throughout his gritty life, Fitzgerald has filled an incredible variety of roles: an often drunk, high, shoplifting teenager; a biker who found happiness working in a San Francisco bar; a relief worker in Myanmar; an actor in porn movies. More recently, he has talked books on the “Today” show and written the children’s book How to Be a Pirate. Indeed, this is a man who writes equally well about Sara Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and Gavin McInnes, the founder of the neo-fascist group Proud Boys.
With Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Fitzgerald joins the ranks of some of the very best memoirists, including Tobias Wolff, Tara Westover and Dani Shapiro. This entertaining and thoughtful book reveals Fitzgerald’s talents as a master craftsman of unusual insight and will leave readers eager for more.
A brilliant and wildly creative young woman with sharp corners and a sharper tongue discovers the softer side of life in Bolu Babalola’s dazzling debut romance, Honey and Spice.
Kikiola “Kiki” Banjo is a Nigerian British undergraduate student at Whitewell, a fictional university in England. Among the Black community of Whitewell, known as Blackwell, she looms large. She leads FreakyFridayz, the standing Friday night hangout, and hosts a popular relationship advice radio show, “Brown Sugar.” But few people truly know her. After her mother’s near-fatal illness and a falling-out with her best friend over a manipulative guy, Kiki has withdrawn into herself, only letting her “ride or die” roommate into her private life.
Meanwhile, a new transfer student named Malakai Korede has abandoned his economics degree to study film, his first love. His girlfriend broke up with him over this decision, and he subsequently decided not to get overly involved with the girls he dates at his new university. Kiki calls him out on her radio show for his lack of commitment, warning the Black female students against going out with him.
But then Kiki and Malakai realize they could both achieve their dreams—hers of winning a prestigious internship, his of winning an esteemed film competition—by working together to create a film and a radio show focusing on relationships. The only problem is that Malakai’s commitment phobia, Kiki’s lack of a dating life and her derision toward Malakai are common knowledge on campus. So they decide to start fake-dating in order to give themselves credibility. True trust is slow to grow between them, but Kiki’s and Malakai’s vulnerabilities and innate integrity, not to mention their sparky chemistry, deftly portrayed in Babalola’s banter-filled prose, draw them closer and closer together.
Sprinkled with Yoruba words and British slang, Honey and Spice hums with Babalola’s unique voice, which is full of energy and sensitive insights, often punctuated with laughter. Kiki and Malakai are multilayered, complex characters who approach life with thoughtfulness, passion, maturity and courage. Readers will especially appreciate how they are not afraid to tackle problems head-on, trusting that their instincts and intellectual abilities will be able to solve any issue. Honey and Spice is a deeply romantic story of two souls who grow closer as they recognize the generosity and humanity in each other. They each have their faults, but their individual imperfections make them perfect together.
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