There is comfort and familiarity in reading the latest novel by one’s favourite writers, but there is also something undeniably thrilling about discovering a new, exciting voice. It is akin to finding yet another reason to read, never mind the fascinating possibility of that author becoming one of the most sought after writers of our generation. This is not unheard of — Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Khaled Hosseini are just a few recent writers whose debut novels catapulted them to dizzying heights of fame.
2017 was rich in spectacular first appearances from diverse writers from all over the world. The majority of the big debuts were by women writers; two were even shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize: American author Emily Fridlund for History of Wolves, an atmospheric coming-of-age story of a teenage girl’s awakenings in the icy woods of Minnesota, and British writer Fiona Mozley for her ethereal Elmet, a compelling rural family saga inspired by Yorkshire folklore. Speaking of folklore, American Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is another such novel, a mesmerising fable about the eternal conflict between the old and the new, set in snowy medieval Russia.
While globally the year was all about escalating xenophobia, building walls and tightening borders, on the publishing front the spotlight was on erasing boundaries and promoting diversity. Many big debuts were topical works of fiction that either provided relevant, astute commentary on the current state of affairs or looked back to examine events that led us here. A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton was a scorching look at systemic racism in America. Timely and poignant, it followed three generations of a black family in New Orleans and not only laid bare racial segregation, but also painted a layered portrait of a family and their struggles. African American novelist Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give could not have been more relevant to our times. It brought into focus the grave and very real issue of unarmed black people being shot by police, with an accessible, haunting story about a young girl who witnesses her best friend be killed by a police officer.
As 2017 comes to a close, a look at some works of fiction by first-time writers that came out this year
Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian-American poet and her debut novel, Salt Houses, charted the dispersion of four generations of a Palestinian family after the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This succinct, powerfully realised story looked at the emotional and psychological toll that migration and displacement take on a family’s sense of self. American War by Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad was one of the most impressive debuts of the year, as chilling as it was eerily plausible. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a second civil war, environmental crises, unmanned drones and internal strife, the piercing, grim, cautionary tale was prescient in its depiction of a country collapsing in on itself.
An increasingly popular trend in publishing this year was the rise of autofiction — the half-sibling of autobiography — that blurred the line between reality and fiction. Zinzi Clemmons’s debut creatively used the autofiction format to craft a linear mosaic of nostalgia, yearning and bereavement; What We Lose was a heartfelt novel comprising of vignettes, photos and charts. Inspired by her own mixed-race heritage, Clemmons shrewdly examined race, gender and identity in two places that have complicated relationships with these issues: America and South Africa. Evening Primrose by another South African writer, Kopano Matlwa, gave searing insight into the inadequacy of the South African healthcare system. The author, who is also a doctor, wrote the book in the form of journal entries by a young medic to create a blistering, thought-provoking read on the legacy of apartheid and how it plagues present-day South Africa.
‘Cli-fi’, or climate change fiction, has caught on in recent years and, after the recent freak global weather conditions, it seems as though cli-fi is here to stay. British writer Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From was a poetic dystopian tale of motherhood set in a London submerged in floodwaters. Hunter focused on the human cost of environmental crises and tackled pertinent subjects such as migration, refugee crises and humans’ interconnectedness. Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees questioned what would happen if bees became extinct. Published in the author’s native Norwegian in 2015 and in English in 2017, the book skipped back and forth to trace this obliteration via three storylines set over a span of 250 years, beginning from 1851. It was an ambitious debut, and the family story at its core of three beekeepers was what gave this propulsive novel its momentum.
Books that speak for an entire generation, such as Infinite Jest or The Catcher in the Rye have always been popular. This year saw a number of up-to-the-minute books catering to specific Millennial/Generation Rent plights. British author Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, about a 23-year-old philosophy graduate who obsessively stalks a writer on social media, was hailed as the “First Great Instagram Novel.” It was a penetrating satire about the evolution of human bonds and communication in our hyper-connected times. Conversations with Friends was Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s unapologetically contemporary breakout that received a lot of buzz for its candidly comical yet cerebral portrayal of Millennial sensibilities and relationships, self-delusion, egocentrism and quiet uncertainties.
Thriller writers pushed the envelope and broke genre stereotypes. Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner put a different spin on slow-burn thrillers with its mordant juxtaposition of upper-class sophistication and our primal instincts. This ominous noir from the creator of the hit American television show Mad Men looked at class division with startling insight. British-Pakistani writer Imran Mahmood’s You Don’t Know Me was a daring courtroom thriller narrated entirely by an unnamed defendant who is accused of murder and giving his own closing speech. It featured writing that was incandescent with rage, in a story that exposed the inherent flaws in justice systems and the jury’s predicament in having to choose between justice and morality.
One extraordinary debut that managed to transcend literary genres, styles and nationalities was the short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky from Kirkus Prize-winning, British-born Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah. Featuring either characters in Nigeria or Nigerian expatriates, these universal stories covered the entire spectrum of human emotions. From utopian parables to fables and horror grounded in psychological realism, each story was profound, masterfully written and utterly captivating. Arimah’s debut deservedly made it to several of 2017’s ‘best of the year’ lists, and I cannot wait to see what she will write next. Based on her spellbinding debut, she is definitely a talent to watch out for.
2017 English-language fiction debuts by Pakistani writers
Nobody Killed Her by Sabyn Javeri
The Still Point of the Turning World by Sheheryar Sheikh
Snuffing Out the Moon by Osama Siddique
The Light Blue Jumper by Sidra F. Sheikh
Feast: With a Taste of Amir Khusro by Bisma Tirmizi
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 31st, 2017