Whether delving into the mind of a 92-year-old artist or a 16-year-old school girl, each of these first-time novelists plumb the depths of their themes to craft stories that shine with ambition and verve. These are books that reveal modern womanhood in its multiplicity.
In the first section of Asymmetry an aspiring young writer named Alice has a question for her lover-turned-mentor, a much older author named Ezra Blazer. Ezra (a dead-ringer for Philip Roth) has been explaining the principle of Chekov’s gun; the idea that every element in a story must earn its place – if there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter, for instance, at some point later on it must be fired. “If there’s a defibrillator hanging on the wall in the first chapter,” asks Alice, “in a later chapter must it go off?” Such is the repartee of this May-December romance. The second section of the novel revolves around a different character entirely, an Iraqi-American named Amar who’s been detained at Heathrow. Though these two strands don’t explicitly overlap, they share connective tissue, rounding off a debut that feels both powerful and playful.
By the time Hero de Vera arrives at her uncle Pol’s house in America, she’s already lived many lives: a rich girl turned guerrilla fighter back in the Philippines, Hero has come to California to start afresh. Most people don’t ask questions, but Pol’s daughter Roni — a feisty and lovable seven year old who is plagued with eczema — doesn’t know any better. She wants to know how Hero’s hands came to be so damaged. Slowly, and with the help of a young beautician named Rosalyn, Hero starts to find her way out of the past and into a new identity she can fully inhabit. This is a brilliantly written multi-generational novel about a Filipino family, as well as a surprising and sensuous love story. If peaches were the most tender fruit of 2017 thanks to Call Me By Your Name, this year prepare to have your heart melted by a persimmon.
Jamie Quatro’s debut novel expands on themes she began exploring in her 2013 short story collection; the intersection of faith and desire, the psychology of adultery and the weight of sin. Fire Sermon is the story of an affair revealed through fragments of letters, dialogues, confessions and emails (missives that reached their intended recipient and others, perhaps too potent, left to ferment in the drafts folder). Maggie is a Christian and the mother of two grown children. She’s the product of a religious upbringing, and she married young. When she meets James, a poet, at a conference, the two begin a long-distance emotional affair. The story crescendoes when Maggie posits a startling theory: what if “the institution of marriage was given to us as an intentional breeding ground for illicit desire?” Because what if it’s longing that makes us feel truly alive?
Take the strange social ceremonies of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and the pheromone-rich claustrophobia of Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled and you come close to the world Sophie Mackintosh conjures in this wildly confident debut. The Water Cure tells the story of three sisters who are raised in isolation. Their parents say the world beyond their island’s borders is hostile, that the men in particular would make them sick. But when their father, known only as King, dies, and three men wash up on their shores, the girls begin to question all that they’ve been taught.
Based loosely on the life of Leonora Carrington, Heidi Sopinka’s transfixing debut focuses on a 92-year-old artist named Ivory Frame. Determinedly focused on her greatest work, the “dictionary” of the novel’s title, Ivory spends her days in the frozen North deliberating on how best to transcribe her vast library of field recordings. When a letter arrives telling her that she has a grandchild, it strikes Ivory as absurd – especially as she never had a child of her own. The news prompts the elderly woman to look back on her time as a young artist in Paris; experiencing intense friendships and a passionate affair with a prominent Surrealist painter. The book is a meditation on art, ageing and the satisfactions of solitude, all told through the lens of a woman striving to live a creative life on her own terms.
“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth,” says Szu, one of three protagonists in this steamy, sweaty and viciously sharp debut. Set in the heat of Singapore, the book introduces us to a jealousy-riddled 16-year-old named Szu, her beautiful mother (and one-time horror movie actress) Amisa and Szu’s best friend Circe. Spanning 17 years and told from the perspectives of all three women, Ponti is a stunning first novel with a wry, rebellious heart.