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All Coming of Age Coverage

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Nazlı Koca’s debut novel, The Applicant, is a gut-wrenching story that will make you laugh but also question why and whether you should be laughing at all. 

Immigrant and refugee experiences can be surreal and nightmarish, but for those lucky enough to reach their destinations, life can be filled with a sudden Kafkaesque dark humor. Such is the case for Koca’s protagonist, Leyla, a Turkish immigrant in Berlin. After failing out of university, Leyla tries to sue her way back into a student visa, while in the meantime working at an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed hotel. 

As Leyla navigates Berlin’s nightlife, trying to find some sort of solace, she meets a right-wing Swedish tourist, and suddenly she has an in: She can stay in Germany if she accepts a traditional, conservative life, although it would mean giving up her career in art. Initially this bargain seems better than returning to Turkey to live with her mother and sister, but eventually Leyla begins to question what she is really searching for. 

Written in diary form, The Applicant is bound to draw many comparisons to other works (I found it to be like an inversion of the German film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), but the most obvious is to Sylvia Plath’s poem by the same name. Both pieces play with the idea of conformity, and while Plath focuses on the commercialization of femininity, Koca takes a more racialized approach. Leyla experiences subtle racism from almost every character, and through these interactions, we witness the convergence of different ideologies of racial supremacy due to immigration, and how, with the presence of her Swedish lover, white supremacy holds punitive power over all of them. Through the diary format, we get an inside look at Leyla’s forced conformity in what is perhaps a response to the surreal, dehumanizing laundry list Plath wrote decades ago. 

Despite these similarities, The Applicant is a truly unique book, particularly in its profound global scope. Leyla meets characters from all over the world who have come to Europe seeking a better life. Her romantic ideals of Berlin shatter early on, and she is left jaded and addicted to drugs, falling into the exact stereotype she idealized artistically. This underscores Koca’s greatest strength: her ability to find the tragedy, irony and humor in the immigrant experience, showing us how global power has warped our ability to find happiness and to even know what happiness is. 

This is a powerful book that pinpoints exactly where our contradictions lie. It is so powerful, in fact, that it can do all this while still making you laugh.

Immigrant and refugee experiences can be surreal and nightmarish, but for those lucky enough to reach their destination, life can be filled with a sudden Kafkaesque dark humor. Such is the case for Nazlı Koca’s protagonist, Leyla.
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Some people feel like outsiders every day of their lives. One such person is Harley Sekyere, a 21-year-old gay Black man in England who comes from an unsupportive household, felt at sea at college and has no idea where to turn. That’s a situation plenty of people will relate to. And it’s the premise of Small Joys, Elvin James Mensah’s sympathetic debut novel.

It’s 2005, shortly after terrorists coordinated a series of subway and bus bombings that devastated London. Harley had grand plans to graduate from university with a degree in music journalism but dropped out. Bereft of any other constructive goals, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and depression, he makes a drastic decision: Back home in the town of Dartford, southeast of London, he wanders into the woods with a small X-ACTO knife.

He catches a break. Muddy, a straight white man “holding a pair of binoculars,” approaches Harley, sees that he’s bleeding and stops him from proceeding further. Fortuitously, Muddy is more than just a devoted bird-watcher who happened to walk by. He’s also about to become Harley’s roommate.

Mensah then introduces other characters who become part of Harley’s support network. They include Chelsea, a young white woman whose father owns the apartment building where Harley and Muddy live. She’s a friend of Harley’s and helps him reclaim his old job at the cinema where she works. Also in the mix are Finlay, Muddy’s best mate, whom Chelsea is dating; and Noria, a Black woman who’s dating Muddy and is obsessed with styling Harley’s hair.

The center of all of this is Harley, of whom Mensah writes with great affection. He offers unforgettable details, such as when he notes that Harley is so self-conscious that he sometimes stores food in his cheeks “to create the illusion [he] was eating quicker than [he] actually was.” Harley’s lack of assurance, he says, comes from “anxiety and queerness and failure.” It also comes from his homophobic father, a religious man hoping to convert his son; his relationship with an abusive older man; and his burgeoning feelings for Muddy.

Small Joys is simpler and more predictable than the books to which it is already being compared, among them works by Brandon Taylor and Bryan Washington. The raw emotions in Mensah’s book, however, will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

The raw emotions in Small Joys will resonate with anyone who has ever felt as if they don’t belong. Harley may feel like an outsider, but as Elvin James Mensah astutely notes, he’s got a lot of company.

When 17-year-old Bucky Yi is sent from the United States to South Korea, leaving the only home he knows, he must summon all the pluck and perseverance he has gained as a high school football player to survive in a place that is both his birth country and foreign to him. 

Bucky has lived most of his life in the rural town of Tibicut, Washington, having moved there after his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage to an American woman. After his father’s later abandonment, Bucky continued to live with his stepmother, Sheryl, and became determined to get a football scholarship so he could leave Tibicut, where he is one of only three Asian American students at his school. But after getting involved in one of his Uncle Rick’s disruptive outbursts, Bucky is arrested and ends up in an immigration detention center. Unable to provide official proof of his American citizenship, Bucky is deported to South Korea, where he is forced to serve in the Korean army.

Korean American author Joe Milan Jr. spins an immersive, fast-paced story in his debut novel, The All-American. Bucky is an intriguing and sympathetic character. He’s vulnerable and strong, raw and mature. He finds common ground between the divergent points of his birth and adopted countries, such as discovering a way to communicate in Korean while drawing on his experience as an American.

Milan’s writing is tight, with fresh and vivid descriptions that illuminate the contrasts in Bucky’s background and cultural makeup. The novel raises questions about who and what exactly determines your identity. Is it your birthplace, or where you’re raised? Is it your parents or your name or the papers you carry? Is it perception, either from yourself or others?

Rich and engrossing, this coming-of-age story offers an intricate exploration of identity and transformation that will be especially appealing to fans of Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, My Year Abroad by Chang Rae Lee and China Boy by Gus Lee.

Joe Milan Jr.’s debut novel raises questions about who and what exactly determines your identity. Is it your birthplace, or where you’re raised? Is it your parents or your name or the papers you carry? Is it perception, either from yourself or others?
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There are magical islands in Rachel Heng’s Singapore, replete with fish; there are competing political factions and questions of power and control; there are familial relationships and love interests in a world that is being dissolved and rebuilt. This is the realm of Heng’s second novel, The Great Reclamation, upon which she casts a remarkable story.

In 1940s Singapore, British rule is drying up—but so, too, are the fish in the novel’s small village. A curious boy named Ah Boon discovers that he has the unique power to see lively, wondrous islands that are invisible to other people. When he shares his discovery with his family and community, their fortunes change, and the fishing village is able to thrive. Ah Boon, though, is focused on Siok Mei, the spunky neighbor girl, and their lives remain entangled while growing up, pursuing education and confronting their changing political realities and global climate.

Layered beneath all of Ah Boon’s adventures and experiences are the rich landscape and the ways humans measure their lives in, around and because of it. From the magical islands’ plethora of fish to the proposal of land reclamation, the landscape acts and responds, speaks and listens, and Heng highlights these interactions in beautiful and surprising ways. Her prose is alive; each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.

Heng captures the individual and collective challenges of being human, evaluates pretense and power shifts, explores what a modern country might become after the disruption and displacement of World War II, and explores our concepts of family and home—and every bit of it is a delight to witness and revel in. The best novels teach us something new and ask us to engage in worlds beyond our own. For me, The Great Reclamation did just that. I don’t remember the last time I finished a nearly 500-page novel in one day, but I could not stop reading. It’s a remarkable journey.

The prose in Rachel Heng’s second novel is alive. Each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.


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Allegra Goodman’s Sam stands out among realistic coming-of-age novels about contemporary American girlhood.

We meet Sam when she is 7 years old. She lives in an apartment on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her mother, Courtney, and half brother, Noah, a spirited 2-year-old with problems all his own. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is an itinerant juggler and magician who is often on the road. Noah’s father, Jack, is hostile to Sam. 

Courtney loves her children but is overwhelmed by the need to work multiple low-paying jobs to support them. She fervently wants Sam to get the education she herself was unable to obtain. 

During one of Mitchell’s intermittent appearances, he takes Sam to the local fair, where she summits a climbing wall in the rain and discovers her passion. She is a talented climber, but climbing is as much about failing and falling as reaching the top. This metaphor seems obvious, but in Goodman’s skillful telling, it feels real and fraught. We’re brought deeply into Sam’s sensibility, her need to win, her dislike of formal schooling and her desire to please her mother, who has worked so hard to give Sam a decent life. We viscerally feel Sam’s peril, both as a climber and as a young girl. We’re with her through loneliness, problematic boyfriends, self-doubt and loss of youthful confidence, and we connect with her desire to be herself and realize her own dreams.

The novel follows Sam until she enters junior college, and although there are many failures and falls along the way, this is by no means a gloomy story. Sam is a very appealing character, and so are the friends who sustain her. 

Sam’s struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is. We care deeply how Sam’s story turns out, thanks to Goodman’s brilliance and empathy.

Sam’s coming-of-age struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Allegra Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is.

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah

The engrossing 10th novel from Nobel laureate Gurnah is filled with compassion and historical insight.

Afterlives book cover

All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Bitingly funny and sweetly earnest, Mathews’ debut is one of those rare novels that feels just like life.

All This Could Be Different

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.

The Book of Goose

Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah

When your heritage and ancestry are the reasons for your oppression, to whom can you turn in order to survive, but to family? Hokeah’s exceptional debut novel follows a Native American man’s life through the many leaves of his family tree.

Calling for a Blanket Dance

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

Egan’s empathetic interest in human behavior is what drives The Candy House, making her companion novel to A Visit From the Goon Squad more than a literary experiment.

The Candy House

The Consequences by Manuel Muñoz

In this story collection, Muñoz forges a new Latinx narrative, wherein all aspects of Latinx life are displayed with richness and complexity.

Book jacket image for The Consequences by Manuel Munoz

Either/Or by Elif Batuman

Selin, the hero of Batuman’s The Idiot, returns with a voice that is more mature, reflective and droll.

Either Or book jacket

The Furrows by Namwali Serpell

Serpell’s award-winning debut novel, The Old Drift, was a genre-defying epic about three generations of Zambian families, and her purposely disconcerting follow-up will reinforce readers’ appreciation of her daring experimentation and keen talent.

Book jacket image for The Furrows by Namwali Serpell

How It Went by Wendell Berry

Taken together, the 13 stories in Berry’s How It Went create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.

Book jacket image for How It Went by Wendell Berry

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

Escoffery’s connected stories offer an imaginative, fresh take on being a man and nonwhite immigrant in America.

If I Survive You book jacket

Lessons by Ian McEwan

This scathing, unsettling novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises.

Lessons cover

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Garmus’ devastating and funny debut novel blows the lid off simplistic myths about the 1950s.

Lessons in Chemistry book cover

Natural History by Andrea Barrett

The stories in Barrett’s dazzling collection demonstrate that while history distills events, fiction can bring messy humanity to life.

Natural History book cover

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

Ng is undoubtedly at the top of her game as she portrays an American society overcome by fear.

Our Missing Hearts book cover

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

Despite its doomed Midwestern setting, Gunty’s debut novel makes storytelling seem like the most fun a person can have.

The Rabbit Hutch book jacket

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

It’s impossible to predict how, exactly, you’ll fall in love with this novel, but it’s an eventuality you can’t escape.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow book cover

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Diaz’s second novel is a beautifully composed masterpiece that examines the insidious disparities between rich and poor, truth and fiction.

Trust book cover

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Stuart’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence.

Young Mungo book cover

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

The year’s best fiction included a remarkable number of groundbreaking story collections—some deeply interconnected like Oscar Hokeah’s and Jonathan Escoffery’s, others bound mostly by theme and setting, such as Manuel Muñoz’s. We also reveled in several major releases from well-established authors, including Celeste Ng, Ian McEwan, Yiyun Li and Gabrielle Zevin.

Sophomore novels from Hernan Diaz, Namwali Serpell, Douglas Stuart and Elif Batuman surpassed the high bars of their debuts, and first-timers Tess Gunty, Sarah Thankam Mathews and Bonnie Garmus made a hell of a splash.

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In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson once again deploys his customary humorous, off-center storytelling to artfully delve into deeper matters. Where his previous bestsellers The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here focused directly on weird family dynamics, his latest novel explores issues of adolescent angst, art and even societal madness.

The story is set in the out-of-the-way town of Coalfield, Tennessee, in the blazing hot summer of 1996. Frances Eleanor Budge, “Frankie” as her single mother and triplet older brothers call her, is the teller of this tale. At the beginning of the novel, she is an alienated 16-year-old and aspiring writer. She avidly reads “badass women southern writers” like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, but in the summer of ’96, Frankie aspires to write a darker version of a Nancy Drew mystery novel—emblematic of the childhood-adult divide she is about to cross.

During a hot day at the town pool, Frankie meets Zeke, another teenage outsider and a talented graphic artist. Zeke’s wealthy parents have sent him to live with his grandmother while they work out their divorce back in Memphis. Frankie and Zeke become inseparable, tentatively exploring a relationship and more assertively collaborating on nerdy artistic projects. 

One project involves a starkly illustrated poster that contains the mysteriously evocative message “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Swearing eternal secrecy about their prank, Frankie and Zeke staple copies of the poster everywhere. The impact is explosive. Fanned by rumors and paranoia, it creates a national stir, resulting in what will later be called the Coalfield Panic of 1996.

For Frankie, the experience is both scary and liberating. She is proud of her work and upset when outsiders claim authorship of her words. Zeke, however, is troubled by the unexpected community response, and he is relieved when others claim the poster as their own. Alarmed by events, Zeke’s parents whisk him away, and for more than two decades, Zeke and Frankie have no contact. Their eventual reunion speaks forcefully about the qualities of loyalty and friendship.

In the end, Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.

Kevin Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.
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Appalachia is a place that’s often ignored, forgotten or written over. When the region does become the subject of a book, as rarely as that may be, it’s frequently misrepresented. Barbara Kingsolver brings a notably different energy from her previous work to Demon Copperhead, a novel that dwells in the challenges of impoverished southern Appalachian communities and honors the ways in which our landscapes shape us. She does all this through a tremendous narrative voice, one so sharp and fresh as to overwhelm the reader’s senses.

In many ways, Demon Copperhead is a novel of survival—of finding one’s way through the mess of it all and living with dignity. Demon is born into poverty with only his teenage mother to call family, though she later becomes entangled in an abusive relationship. He faces such challenges as the foster system, child labor and his own desire to find success and a meaning for his life. At each turn, he finds ways to make things work. He’s willing to take risks, he cares about his people and community, and he often looks for the best in a moment, even if he doesn’t fully understand what he’s facing. With each choice, Demon’s spirit comes through, and it is haunting. It’s the reason the pages keep turning, as it’s imperative for the reader to find out how he’s going to get out of the latest mess or scrape, how he’s going to find his family and his own story.

Demon’s story—a tale of growth, challenges, sorrow and surprises—is both a retelling of and in conversation with David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ novel about an orphan surviving in Victorian England, which was inspired by the author’s early life. Similarly, Kingsolver’s Demon is spunky and full of life as he navigates a complex, uneasy world. But Kingsolver has made this story her own, and what a joy it is to slip into this world and inhabit it, even with all its challenges.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel is inspired by David Copperfield, but she has made this story her own, and what a joy it is to slip into this world and inhabit it, even with all its challenges.
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Jess Kidd’s novels have an uncommonly stunning tactile quality, plunging the reader headlong into worlds that are both recognizable and strange, where just about anything seems possible. Her fourth book, The Night Ship, is the latest example of this gift. Part historical fiction, part coming-of-age story, it’s an elegantly told tale about two young people whose lives are divided by nearly four centuries but intertwined by circumstance, fate and one famous shipwreck. 

In the early 17th century, a girl named Mayken is on board the Batavia with her nursemaid, bound for the Dutch East Indies. Mayken isn’t interested in being a “fine young lady” for the duration of the voyage. She’d rather explore the underbelly of the ship and learn about the dark things lurking within the vessel. 

Centuries later, in the 1980s, a boy named Gil comes to the island where the Batavia crashed. Living with his detached uncle, Gil feels adrift and lonely. He finds comfort in new friendships and becomes fascinated by the story of the notorious shipwreck. 

Along the way, both children find something mythic to pursue. For Mayken, it’s a monster that may or may not be prowling the bowels of the ship. For Gil, it’s the ghost of a girl who wanders the island. 

Kidd develops these parallel narratives delicately and intricately, with a precision that’s offset by the emotional intensity of her writing. In the early chapters, she makes stylistic connections between Gil and Mayken within the prose itself, then builds upon these initial associations as the story progresses. It’s an impressive juggling act, especially because neither Gil’s story nor Mayken’s ever undermines the other. Instead, they nourish each other, guided along by Kidd’s deft stylistic flourishes. From the smells of the ship to the texture of the kitchen counter in Gil’s new home, it’s all deeply immersive. And through it all, magic always feels just around the corner. 

Whether you’re a fan of ghost stories, historical novels or both, The Night Ship stands a good chance of sweeping you along in its wake. 

Whether you're a fan of ghost stories, historical novels or both, The Night Ship stands a good chance of sweeping you along in its wake.
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Friendships made in childhood have an intensity like no others, as they’re often rooted in immediate and sometimes inexplicable feelings of connection. This kind of deep relationship is the subject of Yiyun Li’s novel The Book of Goose. Not since Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.

Fabienne and Agnes grew up together in the countryside of postwar France. Memories of those days are reignited when Agnes, now married and living in the United States, hears from her mother that Fabienne has died in childbirth. 

As girls, they played together endlessly, with the dominant Fabienne always taking charge. When Fabienne suggests that they write a book together, Agnes complies, but it’s not a true collaboration: Fabienne dictates the story to the more docile Agnes, who also has the better penmanship. Their book is a collection of frankly told stories about the harshness of country life, and it attracts the attention of the village postmaster. Interest spreads as far as Paris, where the book is published solely under Agnes’ name, and the young author becomes a minor celebrity. Agnes is then sent to finishing school in London, where she falls under the tutelage of the controlling Mrs. Townsend.

Now, years later, Fabienne’s death offers Agnes the opportunity to come to terms with the life she created for herself, so far away from Fabienne’s calculations and Mrs. Townsend’s grandiose expectations.

Told by Agnes in brief, succinct chapters, The Book of Goose is an elegant and disturbing novel about exploitation and acquiescence, notoriety and obscurity, and whether you choose your life or are chosen by it. Through her characters, Li studies the sway of manipulation, like the power-shifting game of rock-paper-scissors—a motif which frequently pops up throughout the novel. And though Agnes never stops longing for the friend whose brilliance provided her life with a sense of wholeness, the reader might be excused for believing that it was Agnes’ game to win all along.

Not since Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend has a novel so deftly probed the magical and sometimes destructive friendships that can occur between two girls.

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