STARRED REVIEW

August 01, 2021

The best debut novels of 2021—so far

Our sincere apologies to the rest of the novels in your TBR, but these books deserve a spot at the top. After all, they are the best debut novels so far in 2021!

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Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

The story centers on three people: Reese, a mid-30s transgender woman; her ex, Amy, now Ames, who detransitioned following their breakup three years ago; and Ames’ superior at work, Katrina, a cisgender woman. Ames’ clandestine hookups with Katrina have resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. Now, faced with the question of parenthood and what fatherhood would mean for his identity, Ames reaches out to Reese. If Reese could co-parent with them, maybe he could feel confident about his own role.

Navigating a pending shared parenthood isn’t simple, and Peters takes the reader on a vivid trip through the characters’ backstories to show how they have arrived here, adding intricate layers to every moment. She displays a masterful control over this story, offering a psychological deep dive that is still entertaining thanks to the potency of Reese, Ames and Katrina. The vivid supporting cast is equally as endearing, as not one side character seems to understand that they are not the lead.

Devastating, hilarious, touching, timely and studded with fun pop culture references and celebrity cameos, this is an acutely intelligent story about womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie within.

Detransition, Baby is, simply put, fantastic. But somehow even the most complimentary adjectives feel insufficient to describe Torrey Peters’ first novel, as they cannot adequately capture the experience of spending time with her characters, who are so fully realized and complex that the truth seeps out of them from the first page.

Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace.

Like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Robert Jones Jr. gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling.

Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced.

Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century.

Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse.

These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry.

This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.

Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

At the end of the 19th century in London, Swansby House is a place of high hopes and bustling industriousness. There, Peter Winceworth writes the letter “S” entries for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. He’s also in a pickle of his own making: From childhood, he has affected a lisp as a means to get special treatment, and the stress of maintaining the ruse ensures an undercurrent of discomfiture in his every interaction. Combine that with his irritatingly extroverted co-workers and an unrequited crush on a colleague’s fiancée, and he needs a release—which comes in the form of false entries (or mountweazels) that he secretly inserts in the dictionary as an act of quiet, clever rebellion.

In the present day, intern Mallory is the sole employee of Swansby family descendant David, who is determined to complete the dictionary after a century of lying fallow. Production was halted by the onset of World War I, during which the staff perished and the printing presses were melted down for munitions. David wants to give the dictionary new life by digitizing it, but first Mallory must suss out and remove the mountweazels that pepper its pages. She’s also assigned to phone-answering duty, which isn’t as mundane as it sounds: Every day, a stranger threatens violence because the definition of marriage is changing. These calls are particularly distressing because Mallory is struggling with coming out.

Williams ushers readers back and forth in time as Peter and Mallory wrangle with capricious office politics, unresolved romantic feelings and the assorted indignities of being human, often to hilarious effect. The author has a gift for writing set pieces and inner monologues that at first seem quotidian and then gradually spiral—or soar—into delightful absurdity.

In The Liar’s Dictionary, Williams has created a supremely entertaining and edifying meditation on how language records and reflects how we see the world, and what we wish it could be.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Eley Williams shares how her relationship to language has changed, plus a deeper look at her charming debut novel.

Two lexicographers employed by the same company and separated by a century are at the heart of The Liar’s Dictionary, an imaginative, funny, intriguing novel by Eley Williams, author of the critically lauded 2017 short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

Congratulations on your first Ellery Lloyd novel! How did you decide on your collective pseudonym? Did you also come up with the idea for the book together?
Collette: We should probably have a better answer for this, but after toying around with various combinations of our own names, we decided to just go with something we liked the sound of. Long first names and short second names sound good we think, and we wanted something unisex that wasn’t just initials—so then it was just googling and playing around with it. We only remembered after settling on Ellery Lloyd that Ellery Queen was the pseudonym for a pair of crime fiction writers in the 1930s!

Your novel takes us into the minds of Emmy, a famous “mumfluencer,” her conflicted husband, Dan, and an unnamed person who wants to destroy Emmy. Did you each take a character? Did you do anything to inhabit those points of view?
Paul: We did start off writing separate characters, but actually by the time it came to the second draft, we both wrote and rewrote all of it—and we can’t now tell who did what.

Collette: There are parts Paul is especially proud of that I am pretty sure I wrote, and vice versa! In terms of research and inhabiting the parts, well, we had a young child, and I personally—and not with the novel in mind, just as a new mum whiling away hours stuck on the sofa under a baby who fed constantly and wouldn’t sleep—fell down an Instagram scroll hole. So I felt quite immersed in that world!

"We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her."

People Like Her certainly captures the joy, pain and occasional grossness of parenthood. Did you look back on your lives together for inspiration?
Collette: The grossness, definitely. There were a lot of exploding nappies in the Ellery Lloyd household! Something a friend said before our daughter was even born really lit a spark in my mind for the novel: If you find it all easy, if you’ve had a good birth and your baby is a dream, doesn’t cry, feeds well, sleeps through—don’t tell other parents, because they will either think you’re lying or hate you. We didn’t have that baby (she didn’t sleep pretty much ever), but I thought that was so interesting, and we definitely riffed on that with Emmy and Dan.

Collette, you’re a journalist and editor, and Paul, you’re a novelist and professor. How did your backgrounds inform your writing? Did either of you get veto power over any aspects?
Paul: We’ve both spent our careers giving people feedback or editing others’ work. It would be a bit churlish to complain about someone else editing our own—especially someone you’ve been married to for a decade. Practically, we work in a Google Doc and so can see when one is tinkering with the other’s sections, and honestly it’s never caused an issue, but we do need a watertight chapter plan from the outset, or it ends up like a game of Consequences!

What is your relationship with social media?
Paul: I don’t use it really, apart from Twitter occasionally.

Collette: I used it far, far too much when our daughter was little, and perhaps that was why I wanted to place it at the heart of our first novel, so that at least I could chalk all those hours up as research! I didn’t use it in an especially healthy way if I’m honest—I never interacted, only scrolled, because I was shy, I think—but I was also conscious that some people do find real community and connection there. We wanted to show both sides of the coin, the good and the bad, in People Like Her.

Your approach to Emmy is so clever: an Instagram influencer who draws a million-plus followers by making her life seem worse, not better, than it is. Do you think people will reevaluate those they follow on social media, and why they follow them, after reading your book?
Collette: None of us presents an exact replica of our true selves on social media, and anyone who uses Instagram hopefully knows that. So no, I’d be surprised if it made anyone reevaluate who they follow or why. I hope it might make people question why women especially have to belittle their own achievements to seem relatable, and therefore likable, though.

The business acumen of Emmy and her agent, Irene, is impressive, whether dealing with endorsements or reacting to a crisis. Was it important to show the savvy and strategy behind the selfies—and to explore the conflict between what gets followers vs. what’s morally sound?
Collette: They are both smart, ambitious and intelligent, two young women who have thrown themselves into the influencer industry and are really, really good at it. Yes, sometimes they make bad—terrible, even—decisions, but those decisions are based on what they know works. They’d both probably argue that it’s the audience’s fault they’re driven to those lengths to keep their business going. Whether or not you’d agree with them is another matter, of course.

What sorts of patterns did you see as you researched influencers?
Collette: The biggest pattern I saw is that only the people who take it seriously actually succeed and make money. You don’t become an influencer by accident. What I think will be interesting, and we explored this with Emmy, is how this very new career path pans out in the long term. Because the one constant with this sort of technology is that it will change, and that is something even the biggest influencers can’t influence.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of People Like Her.


How have you been celebrating the release thus far? What’s next for you?
Paul: Well, given the pandemic, we have mainly been celebrating by sitting at home and writing our second book, which is set in the world of celebrity private members’ clubs. We are hugely excited by all the positive reviews of People Like Her, and we can’t wait for it to reach a wider audience. It would, of course, be amazing to see Emmy and Dan on screen. We have offered our services to play them but weirdly haven’t heard anything back. . .

 

Author photo by Annick Wolfers.

Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons explore the anxiety-inducing allure of Instagram in their debut thriller, People Like Her, written under the pen name Ellery Lloyd.

It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie, addressing issues of race, class, privilege and upward mobility.

Ganton, Indiana, is a town whose “very soul was a trapdoor, a gateway to nothingness that few people climbed out of.” One of the lucky few who managed to escape this dying factory town is Ruth Tuttle, a Black woman who headed to Yale, became a successful chemical engineer and now lives in Chicago with her equally successful, charismatic husband, Xavier.

The world seems their oyster as they celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008, but that bubble bursts when Xavier mentions he is ready to start a family. Ruth has a secret that she finally reveals to Xavier: At age 17, before graduating high school, she gave birth to a son who was whisked away and given up for adoption by her grandmother, who raised her. When Ruth returns to Ganton to search for her son, she encounters an 11-year-old white boy, nicknamed Midnight, the grandson of Lena, a close family friend.

Ruth and Midnight trade narration between chapters as their lives become increasing intertwined. Midnight’s mother died in childbirth—as did his sister—and Midnight and Ruth are lonely, heartbroken souls struggling to find their way forward. With beautifully crafted prose and a gift for dialog, Johnson takes readers on an action-packed ride toward a dramatic, revelatory conclusion. As Ruth’s grandmother warns, “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day. And it’s going to bite you. Real hard.”

A fictional callback to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, The Kindest Lie also brings to mind Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, in which another young Black woman returns to her hometown to try to reconcile her past, present and future. Don’t miss this powerful debut.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nancy Johnson shares her journey to publication and the inspiration behind The Kindest Lie.

It takes tremendous talent to seamlessly combine social commentary with a powder keg of a plot, and Nancy Johnson accomplishes just that in her gripping debut novel, The Kindest Lie.

The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition. As their world crumbles, Saeedah abducts their daughter and disappears. The novel only gets better from this setup, transforming into a family saga that spans from 1970 to 2018.

This ambitious tale moves between Saudi Arabia and the United States, touching on the Gulf War, 9/11, increased Islamophobia in the U.S., the beginning of women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and other moments of social and cultural upheaval. Through it all, the secrets, desires and fears of Muneer, Saeedah and their daughter compose a complex picture of how society and the individual shape and inform each other. When society’s expectations render certain decisions impossible, how can an individual choose to live? This question shapes the novel, from Saeedah’s choice to run away with their daughter and Muneer’s search for her, to considerations of journalistic integrity and how familial ties bind and dissolve over time.

Impressive, too, is the sense of place, the ways that bodies of water connect characters to each other. The details of each country are so richly and vividly imagined that as characters travel, so does the reader.

Structurally and syntactically, Bride of the Sea is a gem. The shift from the opening in 2018 to the events in 1970 is abrupt, and these moments fuse again as the novel concludes. Quotah structures these connections to maintain the reader’s sense of wonder, to keep you reading through the loop as you learn of each character’s identity and fate, their secrets and stories.

The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition.

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