The 10 Best Debut Novels of the Decade

That's Right, It's Happening . . .

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists, and it’s only appropriate to begin our journey with the best debut novels published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. Feel free to add any favorites we’ve missed in the comments below.

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The Top Ten

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's WifeTéa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
(2011)

It’s easy to forget, reading The Tiger’s Wife, that Obreht was only 25 when it was published in 2011 (that year, she became the youngest-ever winner of the UK’s Orange Prize—and did you know it was the first book ever sold by her agent, and the second book ever acquired by her editor? Yes, I feel bad too.). I say “easy to forget,” but it might be more accurate to say “hard to believe,” because this debut is so ambitious, so assured, and so richly textured that it feels like something that could only come from decades of toil.

It is an astonishing book for a writer of any age, half fable, half gritty portrait of an unnamed Balkan country recovering from civil war. It is a novel about story, and about family, two things that inform and describe one another. “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” our narrator Natalia tells us, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life.” Part of the magic of Obreht’s writing (it’s also true in her latest novel, Inland) is how secure you feel in the worlds she creates—the feeling is akin to stepping into a photograph, or a documentary: you look around and clock every detail; you never doubt. You can feel reality hovering underneath the sentences, even when they’re describing something patently impossible. And yet in this novel, she’s always reminding you how these worlds can change, and how we can change them in the telling.

In addition to winning the Orange Prize, the novel was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times bestseller; it also secured Obreht’s (obviously well-deserved) spot on the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list–Emily Temple, Senior Editor

 

 

we the animals justin torresJustin Torres, We the Animals
(2011)

Every time I write about Torres’s exquisite, intense debut, I find I have to quote the opening, which goes like this:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

It goes on like that. This is a slim novel—my copy has only 125 pages—which makes its intensity all the more impressive; not a word or moment wasted. When I say that it is poetic, I mean it in the most literal of ways: it relies on meter, on sound, on anaphora. You feel it as much as you understand it, like a chant. The story moves slowly from the plurality of childhood—the “we” of the opening—to the individuality of young adulthood, in this case, one boy realizing his in unlike his brothers in a fundamental way.

Improbably, the novel was made into a gorgeous film last year, which you should all find a way to see.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

 

 

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (2013)NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names
(2013)

The kids in NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut are the vibrant hearts of a book that at times reads like a fable. This is partly because of the names the title alludes to, those missing and misaligned and poorly understood. A young girl called Darling and her friends—with nicknames like Bastard and Godknows—wander through the surroundings of a Zimbabwean shantytown that the children call Paradise (“a place we will soon be leaving”). Bulawayo creates one of the indelible contemporary portraits of a child’s friend group, characterized by distillations of playfulness, contempt, solidarity—unadulterated emotions in the young, and yet, for Darling and company, unable to be identified or named in the adult world. This is a world that, Bulawayo suggests, misleads with false assurances: an abortion is best performed with a clothes hanger, only grandfathers can be president, the pastor at church is healing that demon-possessed woman by placing his hands on her and nothing more. The world beyond child’s play produces patronizing NGO workers, stupid tourists, and bulldozers that raze towns. Darling eventually leaves home to live with her aunt in “Destroyed, Michigan” (one of the granular delights of the novel is Bulawayo’s dexterous, often funny wordplay and onomatopoeic flair). Detroit, like Paradise, is a place of myth (“With the cold and dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real”), and Bulawayo is interested in how we get to places like these and why we leave. Throughout Darling’s acclimation period to life in America, memories of her childhood resurface and relationships with her old friends turn cold. Ultimately we understand that Paradise won’t be regained. We Need New Names brought us Bulawayo’s remarkably assured voice (the same year that another great sub-Saharan Africa-to-America immigrant epic, Americanah, was published). Bulawayo took the temperature, so to speak, on the eve of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, with an intimate story of a young woman always looking for home.  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

 

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
(2015)

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” From the very first line of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant debut, I could tell this book was going to make literary history. When The Sympathizer won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, I was glad to see the world agreed. The Sympathizer’s premise sets up its many complicated acts—a child born to a young Vietnamese mother and a dissolute French Catholic priest must flee to South Vietnam for the sins of his parentage; there, he is recruited as a secret agent to spy on his countrymen, and soon enough, turns double agent by the North to spy on his powerful patrons in the South, his position complicated by his refugee flight to California, where he falls in love with the rebellious daughter of a former general who once employed him.

Oh, sympathizer, how shall I count the ways in which I love thee? The Sympathizer‘s brilliance is manyfold: the perspective of a double agent makes us privy to secrets and allows us entrance to rationalizations on all sides of the Vietnam conflict; the nameless spy’s peregrinations follow an Odyssean route to exile and then home, culminating in a Lord of the Rings-esque return to the shire only to find it controlled by petty dictators; a parody of Apocalypse Now encapsulates everything that is wrong with both Hollywood and the American interpretation of authenticity. There are many reasons to sing the praise of this singular text. While frequently earning comparison to Graham Green and John le Carre, The Sympathizer is also a meditation on identity, exile, culture, history, and so much more. I can’t recommend this book enough.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

 

 

what belongs to you garth greenwellGarth Greenwell, What Belongs to You
(2016)

The first section of Garth Greenwell’s debut is almost a love story: a young man teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria meets a hustler named Mitko while cruising in a public bathroom. But as their relationship unfolds, it becomes not quite a romance, though not not a romance: something stickier and stranger and more real than you typically encounter in novels.

The first section is wonderful: beautifully written (Greenwell is a poet) and intriguing. But it’s the second section that made me lose my breath a little: it’s mostly a single, unbroken paragraph, which is the kind of stylistic choice that would normally make me roll my eyes, or at least skip ahead in the book, one finger on the page at hand, to see where I could expect the next visual and mental break. But in this novel, I did not want a visual or mental break—I only wanted more of this. “A Grave” is a series of memories about the narrator’s childhood in rural Kentucky, and about his relationship with his father—it is the heart of the book, a stylistic and emotional lynchpin, but it’s also simply so astute, so expertly drawn, so mesmerizing.

I know it’s a book blurbing cliché to use this term but I really can’t help it here: this novel is frankly luminous. I actually mean that my experience reading it was like holding something glowing in my hands. I may be mocked in the Literary Hub office for this flowery description. Sorry—not sorry. Writinig in The Guardian Andrew Solomon called it “the best first novel I’ve read in a generation” I have to say I agree.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

 

 

Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun
(2016)

There’s no shortage of brilliant, hilarious, incisive Jamaican novels—to say nothing of the Caribbean as a whole. Caribbean literature is sometimes reduced by American critics and book blurbs to Jamaica—and this reflects, too, the way that many Americans tell me they’ve never heard of my island, Dominica, and if they know anywhere at all, it is probably Jamaica. (Ironically, it’s not Puerto Rico, which actually is an American territory.) Still, our literature would be very different without Jamaican fiction and poetry, and the Jamaican novel, in particular, like the Trinidadian novel, is critical to understanding our region’s artistic, social, and political conditions. Writing a memorable, meaningful novel is one thing; writing a memorable, meaningful debut is another, and Nicole Dennis-Benn managed to do both with her debut, Here Comes the Sun. Her novel is wide-ranging, telling a tale that examines colorism, homophobia, social mobility, women’s bodies, and the debilitating overreach of tourism, all while delivering a gripping story in softly luminous prose. I was excited to read it when I heard that it was coming out, particularly as Dennis-Benn has written movingly about many of these themes before in her essays, and her novel has stuck with me since then as a beautiful addition to the Jamaican canon of literature. In some ways, it’s conventional, particularly when set against the stylistic and representational subversiveness of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, published two years earlier, but Dennis-Benn’s novel is subversive in its own ways, joining a long history of talking about queerness in the Caribbean and its diaspora that includes Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman, novels by Shani Mootoo, and more, and I especially appreciated that we have queer women here experiencing love and loss. And the setting of a Jamaica being overtaken by tourism is important; it echoes the warnings and plaints of Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and the many writers who have reflected on the danger of the commercialization of the islands at the expense of their inhabitants. Here Comes the Sun is a debut that stuck with me, and will be with me, I suspect, for a long time.  –Gabrielle Bellot, Staff Writer

 

 

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
(2017)

It is strange to think of George Saunders as a debut novelist, but after four story collections—including contemporary classics like Pastoralia and Tenth of December—2017’s Lincoln in the Bardo represented a true departure. Saunders has always been one of our funniest writers, which engenders in some critics a suspicion that he is unserious, that he is but the master of a simple trick, repeated again and again with great skill (we should all be so talented). These critics, of course, are wrong. Saunders is a morally serious writer who wields humor like a razor blade, bleeding the cut as needed, getting the reader from one round to the next, story after relentless story. Death, love, loneliness, joy, grief—these are the concerns of great art, and they are the concerns of George Saunders.

Lincoln in the Bardo was published three weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump; it was a particularly grim February for a large swathe of Americans, as November’s shock settled into numbness, each day’s news somehow darker, more absurd, than the last. It was in this context I encountered the sly grace of Saunders novel, a prismatic tale of a father’s near-debilitating grief—the father in question, of course, is Abraham Lincoln, who lost his son Willie in the middle of the Civil War, and was seen to visit the boy’s grave at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. It is there we enter the Bardo, that grayed-out middle space of Tibetan Buddhism in which the dead await rebirth, biding time till the next life beckons; if they’re lucky, they’ll find themselves in a George Saunders novel, mustered into a loose chorus of voices, coarse and tender, bawdy and elegiac, puzzling over the curious fixations of the living as they figure out what it means to be dead.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

 

 

Conversations With FriendsSally Rooney, Conversations With Friends
(2017)

There is very little that can be said about Sally Rooney that hasn’t been written already. Her second novel, Normal People, was published this past April to a deluge of reviews, think pieces, and pontifications on the role of Rooney as *the* millennial novelist. And her debut novel, Conversation with Friends, which came out in 2017, has been tallied by the Lit Hub staff as one of the best debuts of the decade. The novel follows twenty-one-year-old Trinity College student Frances and her best friend Bobbi, who she dated in high school and now remains her other, more charismatic and outgoing half. They do spoken-word poetry together, which Francis writes and Bobbi performs. At one such performance they meet Melissa, a writer in her thirties who invites the girls back to her home, ostensibly for a magazine profile. At dinners, parties, and book launches, the girls try to impress and decode Melissa. They also meet her husband Nick, a handsome actor, who eventually has an affair with Frances. The conversations between the four of them make up the backbone of the novel—they occur in Frances’s kitchen over endless cups of coffee, but also in text messages, emails, and instant messages. They are hyper-articulate, self-possessed, and intellectually curious, but emotionally confused, exploring what it means to be an independent person with ideas and ideals. As Frances navigates her splintering with Bobbi and her connection with Nick, we follow her development into the adult she will become. It is a novel with an exceptional amount of heart, and at its core a story about friendship and love couched in psycho-political “conversations” about contemporary life.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

 

 

Tommy Orange, There There
(2018)

Tommy Orange’s kaleidoscopic novel about 12 different Native Americans living in and around Oakland won pretty much all the most coveted prizes for debut novels in the year it came out: the National Book Critic Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize. It was also a bestseller, a feat for such a complex literary novel; it was, for a while there, the book everyone was telling everyone to read.

It was so hyped that the editors of The New York Times felt they had to title Colm Tóibín’s (glowing) review “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good.” And, well, it is—gripping, tense, and weighty, and stylistically light on its feet if unrelentingly bleak in its conclusions. It looks directly at something most (white) Americans would like to ignore: our systematic subjugation of Indigenous people and, more pointedly, the continuing repercussions of that subjugation.

Or as Tóibín described it: “an ambitious meditation on identity and its broken alternatives, on myth filtered through the lens of time and poverty and urban life, on tradition all the more pressing because of its fragility, it is as if he seeks to reconfigure Oakland as a locus of desire and dreams, to remake the city in the likeness of his large and fascinating set of characters … the novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.”  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

 

 

Ling Ma, Severance; design by Rodrigo Corral (FSG)Ling Ma, Severance
(2018)

Do you remember being nine and staying up all night, reading with a flashlight under the covers because you simply could not wait until morning to know what happens next? Reading Ling Ma’s Severance gave me that need-to-know feeling. The bare-bones premise alone is fascinating: something calls Shen Fever strikes New York City. It spreads like wild fire, turning the afflicted into a kind of zombie–not so much dangerous as they are really banal. The “fevered” are stuck mindlessly in their everyday routines (one particularly haunting scene includes watching a fevered family set the table, go through the motions of eating, clear the dishes, rinse, and repeat), which they perform until their bodies rot.

Our heroine Candace Chen is a twenty-something-year-old working in Bible production. She’s a hard worker, a creature of habit, and pretty much the only one who stays in Manhattan through the horrors of Shen Fever. Severance jumps back and forth between her normal days to her suffocating stint with a band of survivors after leaving the city. Ling Ma is a master at cutting through time, and leaving us in moments where, much like everyone else in the story, we’re wondering how did we even get here?

While other families flee, Candace moves into her office, continues to work, and starts an anonymous photography blog of the decimated city. (In a lot of ways, this is a story about being disillusioned by New York.) (And also a pretty funny and creepy critique of capitalism and the workplace.) Honestly, Candace’s matter-of-fact, unsentimental tone makes her the perfect person to be with during what feels like the end of the world.

We also learn that Candace has no family in America. Both of her parents are dead. About halfway through, we get to what I think is kind of the heart of the thing: Ling Ma pulls us even further back into the past, showing us a bit of Candace’s childhood and her family’s immigration to America. Severance is a brilliantly-told story that uses the zombie apocalypse trope to reveal the sometimes-hollowness of things like nostalgia, religion, and the things we do to assimilate to a new culture.  –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

 

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Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand KingdomsN. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
(2010)

There is not one debut American novelist in the past decade who has had such a thrilling, historic, and consistent rise to critical and commercial success as N. K. Jemisin, the speculative fiction writer who always seems to be opening new doors and running through them. “It doesn’t make any sense to write a monochromatic or monocultural story, unless you’re doing something extremely small,” Jemisin told The Guardian in 2015. In such historically conservative genres like fantasy and science fiction, Jemisin has managed to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row (2016-18), a Nebula, and a couple of Locus Awards to boot. Since her 2010 novel debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin has amassed a dizzying number of Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award nominations. She has done for American speculative fiction what Morrison did for the American postmodern novel. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Yeine Darr, a barbarian outcast (and daughter of an illicit mixed-race marriage) from the large ruling family of the city of Sky, is unexpectedly named as one of three heirs to the throne, which sends her unwillingly into a bloody civil war with two powerful cousins. We learn that Sky is essentially a city inhabited by one big, messed-up, hierarchical family, the Arameri. “Full Bloods” like Yeine intersect with a mysterious band of enslaved gods—many of whom have their own plans for Yeine—and the result is a sprawling book of political intrigue. If The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones met up and discussed the complicated dynamics of a racial caste system, they probably still wouldn’t come up with something as refreshingly inventive as the world that would become the foundation of Jemisin’s much-lauded Inheritance Trilogy–Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

 

 

swamplandia karen russellKaren Russell, Swamplandia!
(2011)

I will drop everything/pass through fire/walk 5,000 miles to read a Karen Russell short story. From her peerless imagination spring sinister little wonders with disquieting, emotionally resonant cores—eerie, unmoored worlds, tinted by the supernatural and shot through with menace, humor, and grace. Whether following a down-on-his-luck tornado farmer, a pair of lonely vampires though the centuries, or a dreamy gondolier in a flooded Florida, the way her tales unfold is always surprising, always artful, always sneakily devastating. The same can, has, and by god should be said of Russell’s sole novel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize back in 2012 (the year the board infamously failed to select a winner despite the fact that both Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson’s magnificent Train Dreams were in the running). Set on an island off the southwest coast of Russell’s native Florida, it’s the story of the Bigtrees, an eccentric family of alligator wrestlers who live on the titular Swamplandia!, a ramshackle alligator-wrestling theme park. Narrated by young Ava Bigtree as she processes the death of her mother and gamely tries to make sense of her bizarre, unstable, often fantastical world—which includes a sister who is in love with a ghost; a jaded brother who has absconded to a competing, hell-themed theme park; and a mysterious, feather-coated vagabond known as the Bird Man—the novel is a gorgeously lush swirl of humor, horror, and heartbreak with some of the most haunted and enchanting writing you are ever likely to read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

 

 

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben LernerBen Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station
(2011)

“Poetic,” as a description, is rarely intended to connote humor. This is a shame, because in my experience, poets write some of the most subtly hilarious novels around. Take Leaving the Atocha Station, a novel by and about a poet. The narrator and protagonist, Adam, is on a fellowship year in Madrid, trying and mostly failing to write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War. Instead, he reads and goes to parties and gets into romantic entanglements (some tanglier than others).

When I read this book, I was in the midst of my own period of trying and failing to write poetry around a lot of people who could speak of nothing but John Ashbery, and was perhaps particularly receptive to its charms. I can understand why a novel by and about a privileged, anxious, aimless, (at times comically) dishonest white dude might feel slightly less urgent now than when it came out, but I maintain that this is one hell of a debut.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner invites the reader to laugh with his protagonist as well as with him. The novel feels propulsive rather than meandering, as if the reader is the one whose fellowship is quickly running short. I suspect the political world of the novel (Adam is in Madrid during the train bombings of 2004, and feels at a distance from his Spanish friends’ high emotion around the terror) may feel dated now, but I still recommend reading Lerner’s debut for the joy of pitch-perfect poet comedy if nothing else.  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

 

 

Kevin Barry, City of BohaneKevin Barry, City of Bohane
(2012)

Irish author Kevin Barry is a dark wizard of language and City of Bohane is an unholy conjuring of the highest and most hypnotic order. A dystopian gangland tale set in 2053 in an anarchic west of Ireland town, it’s a story of tribal feuds and ancient grudges, power struggles and doomed loves, prodigal sons and lions in winter, all woven together with such unhinged linguistic flair that reading it you feel as if the book itself might burst its banks and flood the room with its salty, growling dialect. No one in the novel utilizes anything even resembling modern technology, all memory of which seems to have disappeared into the etheric time before an unspecified fall. In lieu of hi-tech world-building, though, Barry gleefully expounds on the steampunk street fashion, the wheezing locomotives, the weaponry and opiates and living quarters of his rogue’s gallery of ne’er-do-wells who hiss their hybrid colloquialisms though the alleys of Bohane’s Smoketown quarter. There’s Logan Hartnett, the lanky, ice-veined gang leader whose faction controls the city; Gant Broderick, the gargantuan, melancholic former Smoketown boss, returned to Bohane after twenty-five years in exile and still pining for the woman he lost to Logan; Jenni Ching, the fiercely intelligent young bodyguard with designs on the top job whose Chinese immigrant mother drowned herself in the Bohane river; and a dozen other incorrigible grotesques, each with their own particular arsenal of axes to grind. If you like a tidy, quiet, emotionally nuanced, domesticable debut, this feral creature will horrify and repel you; but if you’re on the hunt for a gloriously untamed beast of a novel, one which revels in its slobbering excesses and dazzles with its thousand phosphorescent tendrils, Barry’s sentient fallen kingdom will blow your mind.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

 

 

Merritt Tierce, Love Me BackMerritt Tierce, Love Me Back
(2014)

By the time Merritt Tierce’s debut novel came out in the fall of 2014, the book had already earned her a nod as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” 2013 class (thanks to early readers) and she had a Rona Jaffe award to boot. It was an auspicious start, one that came with great promise but a good amount of pressure, too. Love Me Back more than delivered on both counts. One of the decade’s most visceral reads, it charts the life of a young waitress working in a Dallas steakhouse, the kind of place where diners pay top-dollar, abuse their privileges, and the staff works toward a nightly oblivion through a mixture of drugs, drink, sex, and hard labor. The pain that comes along with that labor—a life of service and excess—is chronicled in startling detail. A strange kind of beauty is found there, too. Tierce charts every long night, every sordid encounter, and the harsh mornings after. Self-destructive behavior abounds, especially for her protagonist, who is reckoning with the decision to abandon a young daughter after a surprise pregnancy. Drugs and strangers become her tools. “It wasn’t about pleasure,” Tierce writes, “it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.” Work is this author’s big theme—the labor, the pride, the indignity, the tolls physical, spiritual, and otherwise. We all interact with the service industry on a daily basis; many of us have worked in it, at some point. Few writers have ever taken it on so directly or with such profound results.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

 

 

Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian
(2016)

The Vegetarian should, based on its length, be a simple tale. Narrated by the husband of the titular vegetarian, Han Kang’s tale begins with a description of a dutiful wife, unusual only in her refusal to wear a bra, whose sudden decision to stop eating meat sends her partner and family into a spiral of confusion, where forcible consumption of meat quickly becomes a metaphor for violation. The vegetarian begins a slow transformation into vegetable itself—first, she stops eating meat; gradually, she stops eating everything. Her withdrawal from culinary delights is mirrored by her withdrawal from the world. She basks in sunlight, is painted all over with flowers by her sister’s husband (a not-so-successful artist), and for all intents and purposes, attempts to become a plant. Is she onto something, or is she out of her mind? Is she denying the world, or is she fully embracing it? Han Kang leaves the answers to these questions deliberately vague, and the sign of a great work is its ability to be read by many people and interpreted differently by each one.

While many of my coworkers at the bookstore I used to work at appreciated this one from the get-go, it took me several years to prepare myself to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian—I knew it was a book that should be as transformative to the reader as vegetarianism is to its main character. When I did finally read it, upon the recommendation of a friend (hi, Miriam!), I was surprised by its complexity, and by how much I sympathized with the vegetarian’s sister, tasked with keeping the family going, and in her own way, as addicted to aesthetic abasement as her sister. However you interpret this book, it’s haunting ending will linger longer after you read the last page.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

 

 

Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell,
Fever Dream
(2017)

In Spanish, the title of the book is “Distancia de rescate” (“rescue distance”)—a phrase whose weight one only grasps after reading the book. It refers to the bond‚ the “rope” that tethers mother and daughter. Meanwhile the meaning of the English title, Fever Dream, becomes obvious to anyone even skimming the book, who will quickly realize that the entire novel is told in a feverish dialogue between two voices equally desperate for answers about the poison that has plagued their village. One belongs to a boy named David, who speaks steadily if aggressively, while the other belongs to Amanda, who has a daughter named Nina, who seems disoriented and frightened. In Fever Dream tension is not folded gently into the plot—it kicks off the story and rides all the way to the end. Samanta Schweblin experiments masterfully with genre, infusing horror with the impressionist and the surreal, writing a slim novel best consumed in one sitting, which reads more like a play and therefore is an all-consuming experience.

It is engrossing. Detail is dramatized through dialogue, and Schweblin knows just what to pick and what to leave out so that characters and readers alike are obsessed with the story about the poison. Everyone is at the mercy of someone: David is at the mercy of Amanda, Amanda at the mercy of David, and the reader at the mercy of both of them. The only way to find out the truth in Fever Dream is by trusting someone else’s narrative. Even in being swept away in the horrific progression of the novel, and simultaneously, the disease, the reader identifies with Amanda, a mother who realizes she cannot protect her child. In just under 200 pages, Schweblin has delivered a poignant, tragic tale of a fear come true.  –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

 

 

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press)Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
(2019)

Last fall, Ocean Vuong answered a fan on Instagram who asked if he had any advice for teenage poets by recommending, among other things, to “try and read everything. … ask, what is it doing? To me? Why is it doing this? A work of literature is not a code to be solved or a world to be pillage to ‘get the take away,’ it is weather. let yourself be in it fully, then decide if it’s a storm you can thrive in.”

Those words stayed with me while reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s fiction debut, which followed his critically acclaimed 2016 poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Told in the form of a letter from the protagonist, Little Dog, to his mother, who cannot read, the book is an act of witness to the experience of life as a queer Vietnamese refugee growing up in the U.S. and was hailed from all corners of the literary world this year. Describing it that way, though, does not do justice to the way this book shimmers. Its timeline flows between intergenerational history, memory, and the present, including a summer when Little Dog, working on a farm outside Hartford, begins a relationship with another boy, which forms one center of gravity for the novel’s exploration of masculinity and violence in America. Vuong has said in interviews that the book uses the technique of kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure that relies on proximity, not conflict, to build tension and advance the story. Within that structure, this book asks for a kind of quiet, lasting attention that feels like a deep breath; it’s a necessary counter-current to the increasingly relentless pace of life over the last decade. In the context of a brutal colonial history, the story’s tenderness and clear-eyed compassion assert complexity in a country that asks us, more and more, to categorize everything with binary-driven superlatives: good or bad, masculine or feminine, patriotic or unpatriotic. This story is one of the most important of the last decade, and we need to carry its lessons into the next.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

 

 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is In TroubleTaffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman is in Trouble
(2019)

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner tells the story of a beleaguered, recently-divorced doctor whose dating-app-enabled deliverance is halted when his ex-wife drops off their kids with him and disappears to a meditative retreat. Rather obvious, early on, is that he (Toby Fleishman) embodies concerns, neuroses, and entitlements we have read about plenty of times before and don’t need to read about again. Keeping us going is the fact that Fleishman’s third-person-seeming story is tinged with playfulness, inflected with just enough wryness and sympathy that we understand him not to be written as a caricature but to be existing as one. The narrator cares about him, but doesn’t let his story veer from the comic into the tragicomic. Actually, the narrator is the best part about Fleishman. At just the right moment, the narrator is fully revealed not to be a third-person entity, but a first-person commentator. She is a woman. She is a writer. Her name is Libby. And she begins to take control of the story, after wondering why she (a former feature writer for a men’s magazine) has to keep making boring men sound interesting. She begins, then, to tell the story of Toby’s whole marriage, including a true account of his wife Rachel, one which incorporates a meaningful understanding of women’s experiences and therefore changes the chemistry of the book. It’s a jubilant turn of events. With its explicit takedown of the long-standing genre which celebrates boring or gross men, Fleishman is in Trouble might seem perfect to some, and a little too on-the-nose, for others. But it reworks a longstanding patriarchal framework that desperately needs to be taken apart so deftly. The novel is nothing if not a straight-shooter, and is so satisfying when it hits its target.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

***

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Teju Cole, Open City (2011) · Amelia Gray, Threats (2012) · Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) · Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2014) · Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (2014) · Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014) · Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (2015) · Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (2015) · Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015) · Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (2016) · Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (2016); Martin Seay, The Mirror Thief (2016) · Brit Bennett, The Mothers (2016) · Daniel Galera, tr. Alison Entrekin, Blood-Drenched Beard (2016) · Omar El Akkad, American War (2017) · Josephine Rowe, A Loving, Faithful Animal (2017) · Julie Buntin, Marlena (2017) · R. O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (2018) · Daisy Johnson, Everything Under (2018) · Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater (2018) · Weike Wang, Chemistry (2018) · Andrew Martin, Early Work (2018) · Adam Ehrich Sachs, The Organs of Sense (2019) · Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure (2019) · Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy (2019) · Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (2019) · Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019)

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
Emily Temple is a senior editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, will be published by William Morrow in 2020.





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