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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Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, is both staggering in its beauty and delicate in its execution as it takes the Norse characters and stories we are so familiar with and shoves them to the background. Gone are the death-defying feats of Odin and nearly invisible is the quick-tempered Thor. In their stead, Gornichec highlights the overlooked witch Angrboda, Loki’s mate and the mother of monsters.

The Witch’s Heart opens with literal heartbreak and flames. Angrboda has been burned three times and her heart has been stabbed and removed for refusing to help Odin peer into the future. Yet still she lives, largely stripped of her powers and reduced to foraging for roots and snaring rabbits in a forest at the edge of the world. When a god—the frost giant trickster Loki—returns her gouged-out heart, Angrboda is distrustful. But as Loki continues to insinuate himself into Angrboda’s life, distrust turns first to affection and then to deep love. The witch and the god have three fate-possessed children together: the wolf Fenrir, the Midgard serpent Jörmungandr, and the half-dead girl and future queen of the dead Hel. Together with the help of the huntress Skadi, Angrboda attempts to shield her growing family from Odin’s searching eye, but the threat that her unusual family poses to the gods in Asgard can’t be ignored for long, and every step they take pushes them collectively towards a climactic conflict: Ragnarök.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Genevieve Gornichec on writing The Witch's Heart when she should have been writing a term paper.

Gornichec’s work is not a book of swashbuckling Viking adventure. Rather, it is a character study of a woman whose story has otherwise been relegated to but a few sentences of mythology. Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods, looms in Angrboda’s visions, but for the most part this is a story of small moments with large consequences. Gornichec lingers over scenes of domesticity—over Skadi helping Angrboda build her furniture, over the feelings of resentment that accompany your child liking their other parent more than they like you, over the simple wonder and occasional annoyance of sharing a bed with someone you love. The Witch’s Heart invites us to swim in these details, lulling us with descriptions of a family dynamic that we know can’t possibly last.

And this is where the beauty of Gornichec’s work lives. She never denies the tragedy that is inevitable in any story of Norse mythology. Angrboda, like all the others, is bound by fate and her rebellions must be within its confines. For some readers, the small scale of Gornichec’s novel and the focus on the inevitability of Ragnarök might be frustrating. After all, this story is not what we have been told to expect of tales of Vikings and witches. But to those readers, Gornichec offers this: instead of fighting the end, focus on the details and savor the life—and the change—that can be built in the cracks that fate has neglected.

Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, is both staggering in its beauty and delicate in its execution.

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Noni Blake is in a rut. Her teaching job doesn’t fulfill her. A nine-year relationship has come to its sad but inevitable end. She hates her hair and probably drinks too much. Noni decides what she needs is to shake things up.

Her first instinct is to revisit old flames, the ones who got away. But hooking up with the men and women from her past doesn’t give her what she’s seeking, and Noni realizes she needs something else. She needs a pleasure quest.

“I would never tolerate the things I say to myself if someone else was saying them,” Noni realizes. “I disregard my feelings. I don’t value my desires. I don’t nurture myself. I’m mean. Holy shit. Pleasure isn’t a person. It’s personal. And I need to work out what it looks like to me.”

With an unexpected windfall from the sale of her house, Noni embarks on a six-month sabbatical in Europe. She frequents London pubs with old friends. She buys lingerie in Amsterdam. She visits a retreat center nestled in the Scottish mountains. She reads and walks and thinks. And in Edinburgh, she decides to get a tattoo. The tattooist’s name is Beau, but Noni calls him “the Viking” for his gorgeous face and solid frame. (Picture Jason Momoa; I know I did.) Noni’s pleasure quest did not include plans to meet a beautiful Scottish man, but she finds herself drawn to the Viking. As she gets to know him better, Noni realizes the plans she has made for her life may be at odds with her heart.

It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake is, well, pure pleasure. An Australian playwright and novelist who previously published a young adult novel titled Beautiful Mess, Claire Christian is a deliciously fun writer, letting us peek into Noni’s mind as she learns to listen to her own voice. Amid gorgeous European landscapes, Noni and the people she encounters are wholly likable, even when making questionable decisions.

Sexy and joyful, this is the story of a woman grappling with the idea that it’s OK to seek—even prioritize—pleasure.

Noni Blake is in a rut. Her teaching job doesn’t fulfill her. A nine-year relationship has come to its sad but inevitable end. She hates her hair and probably drinks too much. Noni decides what she needs is to shake things up.

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The story of a bold, strong Dakhóta woman named Rosalie Iron Wing unfolds in captivating ways in Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper. As much as this is Rosalie’s story—of her past, her separation from her family and her marriage to a white man—it is also the story of seeds, land and connection to a place.

Told in a range of women’s voices, The Seed Keeper spans from the recent death of Rosalie’s spouse back to her childhood in the foster care system, then goes even further back to reveal the stories of her ancestors and the land they called home. The women in Rosalie’s family and family-by-choice are fascinating, and each offers her own perspective on both the story and the setting in which it unfolds, adding depth to our understanding of Rosalie and the complexities of her character. It’s a rich tale of trauma and choice, history and meaning-making.

But while this story is about the legacy of Dakhóta women, it’s also about white settlers and the ways that Western ideas and farming tactics have impacted rivers, soil and the lives of people and animals. The contrast between how white colonizers use the land and Native Americans care for it viscerally demonstrates the inextricable connection between the earth and the people who love it. When the Dakhóta people were forced to cede their land, the women took seeds with them, and those seeds now form a connective thread of memory and ancestry between generations.

Wilson’s memoir about her life as a Dakhóta woman, Spirit Car, won a Minnesota Book Award. In her first novel, the writing sings in compact, careful sentences, lending a timelessness to the narrative and making it clear that this compelling story is not just about these characters but also about culture, landscape and how we can—and often cannot—understand each other. Haunting and beautiful, the seeds and words of this novel will find their way into your world, however far from the Dakhóta lands that might be.

The story of a bold, strong Dakhóta woman named Rosalie Iron Wing unfolds in captivating ways in Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper.

Shakespeare cautioned that all that glitters is not gold. This lesson runs deep in Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel, Gold Diggers, and many characters learn it the hard way. Happily for readers, Shakespeare’s warning does not apply to the novel itself, a dazzling and delightful work of fiction by an exciting new literary talent.

Teenager Neil Narayan has spent most of his life feeling distinctly average and like he doesn’t quite fit in. Growing up in Georgia to immigrant parents, he is overshadowed by his magnetic and determined older sister, who, annoyingly, seems to have reconciled being both Indian and American. Despite the lofty ambitions that his family and community have for him, Neil struggles to find a drive for anything other than the girl next door, Anita Dayal.

All this changes, however, when Neil stumbles upon the secret that Anita and her mother have been keeping: an ancient alchemical potion that incorporates stolen gold, transferring the ambition and winning traits of the gold’s original owners onto the drinker. Although this potion seems to be the answer to Neil’s prayers, it soon awakens a powerful thirst within him that will not be easily slaked, no matter the consequences for himself or others.

Sathian has produced a beguiling elixir with Gold Diggers, skillfully stirring myth into a playful yet powerful modern-day examination of the American dream and the second-generation citizens who pursue it. A fabulist amalgam of The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, it’s an engrossing cautionary tale as well as a shrewd appraisal of what we consider success—and the moral sacrifices we make to achieve it.

Imaginative and intoxicating, Gold Diggers richly rewards its readers.

Shakespeare cautioned that all that glitters is not gold. This lesson runs deep in Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel.

“Evil isn’t a person. . . . It’s not a political group either. Or a religion like some people think. Evil is a force. Like gravity. It acts on all of us. We’re all vulnerable to it.”

In Port Furlong, Washington, Isaac Balch speaks these words without knowing he will soon experience one of the greatest evils a parent could ever face. Eight days after Isaac’s teenage son, Daniel, fails to come home from football practice, Daniel’s childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Jonah, dies by suicide. In a note, Jonah confesses to Daniel’s murder.

Weeks later, a 16-year-old girl turns up in Isaac’s yard. The bereaved father can’t bring himself to abandon Evangeline McKensey to the cool fall night; she looks as lost as he feels, her unwashed state and not-so-hidden pregnancy suggesting she needs a home. When Isaac has to leave town for a family matter, he risks the discomfort of asking Lorrie Geiger—the mother of his son’s killer—to check in on Evangeline.

In What Comes After, debut novelist JoAnne Tompkins takes readers to dark places in her characters’ psyches: Isaac’s unwillingness to grapple with the complexities of the people closest to him; Jonah’s hatred of his friend; and Evangeline’s growing understanding of what she will do to survive, and what a mother can and cannot walk away from. They’re all learning who to trust, navigating the evil forces that permeate the world.

Tompkins’ experience in the legal system (she was a mediator and judicial officer) exposed her to great tragedy, and this background informs her empathetic exploration of her characters’ lives. She writes about mental health and faith, particularly Isaac’s Quaker beliefs, without sentimentalizing or damning her characters’ experiences. In the novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.

Like faith, evil is also part of the human experience. As the people of Port Furlong grapple with the evil act committed by one of their own, Tompkins poses questions of morality and motivation, nature and nurture, and how people move forward.

When Isaac explains the concept of evil, he points to the tumors that killed his mother. “My mother had cancer, she suffered cancer, but no one ever thought she was cancer itself. . . . Despite all the evidence.”

In JoAnne Tompkins’ debut novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.


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In his breakout graphic novel, New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail charts a millennial’s ungainly journey toward emotional connection.

With generous wit and mostly black-and-white drawings, In follows Nick, an artist trapped in a cycle of hollow conversations and extra-milky lattes. As the book opens, Nick goes to a bar alone because if he were sad—which he isn’t—that is what a sad man would do. His feelings are just out of reach, as if on the tip of his tongue. Real human interactions likewise feel imminent but elusive, unlockable only with the right words.

When Nick does succeed in making a connection, these moments of emotional disorientation erupt with color. Splashes of crumbling landscapes, towering edifices and bizarrely cute flesh-eating monsters illuminate the pages like fever dreams. Here, the narrative power of images speaks for itself.

In has echoes of the 2012 black-and-white film A Coffee in Berlin and Ben Lerner’s many disaffected “lost boys of privilege.” That In is semiautobiographical lends both tenderness and a self-implicating edge to McPhail’s lampooning of the “woke millennial hipster.” The watering holes Nick frequents (albeit with scorn) have whimsical names like Gentrificchiato and Your Friends Have Kids Bar, and are “managed/haunted by a collection of Timothees Chalamet.” McPhail suggests a playful dichotomy in which you are either a person who posts up in coffee shops or are emotionally well. If you’re feeling attacked, or if you’re Timothée Chalamet, please read on.

The characters in In are absolutely delightful. The moment Nick stops berating himself for his inadequacies, the baton for that task is snatched up by his mother, sister, neighbors, 4-year-old nephew and romantic interest, Wren, who is an especially well-developed character. She is an oncologist and, like Nick, a normcore clothing devotee who enjoys drawing unmentionables in Nick’s Moleskine notebook. 

When Wren becomes unexpectedly entangled in Nick’s family life, he is confronted once again with an opportunity to be in—that is, to be vulnerable. And when small talk becomes real talk, the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.

Small talk becomes real talk in Will McPhail's graphic novel, and the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.

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