This summer, it just so happens that I’ve been drawn to books by debut authors, even though I didn’t purposely set out to go on a binge. It’s a good binge, though. Netflix-worthy.
I’m in the process of pitching my novel, called The Scribe, to an agent. It’s tough work. Agents, as many aspiring writers know, have to wade through loads of pitches in their inboxes, only occasionally finding a title they find interesting. It’s very hard to stand out in this field. And my novel sort of defies genre, so that may make it doubly hard for an agent to believe in my work. My novel is speculative, about a pre-Christian society where women are in charge. Considering our current political climate, I believe it’s very timely, but the novel isn’t didactic. It focuses mainly on the relationship between a mother (the scribe of the community) and her teenage daughter, who gets kidnapped by a neighboring patriarchal tribe. The matriarchal and patriarchal tribes are vastly different in spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, and there is plenty of suspense as mother and daughter seek to reunite. This book came from a place deep within me, and I believe in it with my whole heart.
In the meantime, I’m also reading great books, always trying to learn, always trying to hone my writing skills and live in a state of imaginative reverie. I recommend each of these debut authors, depending on what you’re in the mood for.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
The Leavers came out last year, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won the Pen/Bellwhether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. It’s also one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in a long time. Ko does a great job of connecting us to the protagonist Deming, who is challenged to get through life when his Chinese mother strangely disappears without a word. The extended family he lives with believes she decided to leave him and not come back, and because his aunt is in financial distress, he becomes adopted by a couple who live far from the city of Manhattan he knows so well. But the story is not just from Deming’s perspective. The parts I found most interesting and most hard-hitting were the passages told from his mother’s point-of-view, where she explains her childhood and upbringing, her emigration to America, and the early years of Deming’s life, when she struggled to raise him while working 12 hours a day in a factory. I definitely realized my good fortune while reading this book, recognizing that I should shut up when I complain about my job or where I live. Forget trying to find time to do yoga or exercise. Deming’s mother, who changes her name to Polly, is just trying to pay off her debt for the privilege of living in America.
While this novel definitely addresses issues of immigration and deportation, it’s the depth and vitality of the characters that stand out, and while it communicates a didactic, somewhat political message, it’s about family and the bonds that last beyond physical presence.
Education by Tara Westover
The biggest thing I took away from this unbelievable memoir is that Tara Westover is a crazy- strong, unbelievable young woman. And writing this memoir while so many of her family members are still alive is a testament to her bravery.
Westover remembers with great detail the events of her upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon home where her mother becomes an herbalist and her father works in the scrap yard. Her parents don’t believe in sending their kids to school because they think public schools are run by the “Illuminati,” so Tara has to spend her childhood helping her father, often narrowly avoiding disfigurement and intense injury as she works with him in the scrap yard to piece together an income for their family. Eventually, however, Tara develops an interest in education, and decides to study on her own so that she can pass a test to get her accepted into college. While English and writing comes naturally to her, she uses her saved money to buy an algebra textbook and teaches herself math so she can take the ACT and get accepted to Brigham Young University. Unfortunately, her love of education is at odds with her parents’ ideas of success, and the more she becomes successful in the academic world, the further estranged she becomes from the people she loves.
Moving, horrifying, gripping, Educated shows the lengths someone will go to to follow her dream, even if it’s contrary to the world she’s from. I admire Tara Westover for sticking to her guns. She is fierce.
Suicide Club by Rachel Heng
This was a book that I plucked from the shelf of a small independent book store on a recent trip to Asbury Park. It’s not often that I walk into a store and look around for a new book without having heard anything about it, and it was a pleasure to find something by a debut author whose writing was beautiful and perspicacious. (I love that word.)
The only thing I don’t like about this book is the title, which is jarring, and something I didn’t really want my children to see if it was hanging around the house. While I liked the dystopian framework of Suicide Club, the premise early on felt a little cheap and far-fetched, as though trying to be too provocative. It’s a novel set in a not-too-distant future where people spend most of their waking hours trying to find ways to prolong their lives with the hope that eventually they’ll become immortal, with fake blood and skin and other elements that help avoid some of the frailties of a decaying human body. The Suicide Club, on the other hand, is exactly that—a club that decides to die on their own terms, which means they live life on their own terms, too—enjoying what life has to offer: good food, wine, adventure.
Told in third person, the story shifts from Lea, who wants to live forever, to Anja, who is the up-and-coming leader of the Suicide Club. The novel begs readers to ask the question—should death be on our own terms? How long does a person want to stay alive, if we could extend our lives by decades? What does it mean to really live?
There’s something about reading debut authors—a freshness, a jubilance, to the writing, like the energy of starting school in the fall. While I’m now immersed in other novels, reading schooled authors such as Tayari Jones (whose An American Marriage is breathtaking) and Claire Messud, I love finding books by authors just starting out in their careers. And I hope I’ll be able to join the list of them sometime soon with my own work.
If you want to read or have read any of these books, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments, or share what you’re reading this summer.