In a Fante village in Ghana in the mid-18th century, young Effia awaits her first menstruation so that she may marry Abeeku, the new chief, but instead Effia’s abusive mother demands that her daughter tell only her upon the very first sign of blood. Baaba, the mother, after Effia gets her period, conceals this from the others, claiming instead that there’s something wrong with her daughter, thereby allowing Baaba to marry Effia off, not to the chief, but to a British slave trader, who whisks her away to Cape Coast Castle, her prison of luxury. Underneath Effia’s feet, meanwhile, below the castle, Effia’s half-sister Esi (for it turns out Baaba isn’t Effia’s real mother, which accounts, though of course, doesn’t justify, her cruelty towards her) spends her fifteenth birthday in the horrifically inhumane slave dungeon, where hundreds of men, women, and children are left naked and unfed, amidst human waste and vomit-inducing smells. Esi comes from an Asante village, the tribe which would later go to war with Effia’s Fante people. The fates of these two women—one a slave, the other a slave trader’s wife—and their lineages—one in America, the other in Ghana—are richly and unflinchingly traced through the centuries to the present day, and Gyasi’s enormous scope allows for a multifaceted examination of the slavery’s disturbing history and the tragic way its powerfully destructive and demoralizing force reverberates long after its initial perpetrators and victims are gone, burning like a wildfire through lineages and social developments, insidiously forging its violence into troubling social mythologies, scarring families and histories and nations permanently, renewing the burn for succeeding generations, new wounds, unhealed, the agony made no less visceral by the distance from its source. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is an astounding novel of miraculous talent and remarkable moral range, certainly one of the best books of 2016.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Kristopher Jansma’s charming and knowing debut The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a few years old by this point (his follow-up novel Why We Came to the City came out earlier this year), but I just love it so much I wanted to include it here. The story of a young writer’s coming-of-age is that kind of concoction in which Jansma gets to poke fun at the conventions of the genre while still embracing the genre itself. The unnamed (or, actually, multi-named) narrator’s adventures on the way to becoming a writer work like a greatest-hits of Bildungsroman, and the protagonist is like a literary mix of Tristram Shandy, Huck Finn, and Ignatius J. Reilly. From risqué debutantes to writing workshops, Jansma covers the gamut of burgeoning male writer clichés, yet its self-awareness coupled with the narrator’s charms prevent it from becoming obnoxious or too in love with its own cleverness. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards a delightful and poignant novel from a savvy young novelist.
“I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” —Toni Morrison, whose first novel, The Bluest Eye, set a high standard for debuts
Imagine how difficult it must be to have published your first novel. The old cliché that once your foot’s through the door you’ve permanently made it is, obviously, completely untrue, and in fact most first books come and go unceremoniously, with little fanfare and few notices, and their authors—who, no doubt, spent years crafting and completing such a complex art form—are often to forced to promote themselves (send galleys to reviewers, creating event pages on social media, etc.), which has to be somewhat deflating and awkward, if only for the fact that you thought that publishing a book would, oh, I don’t know, make people inherently interested in reading your work instead of having to have it hoisted upon them by authors, who are, anyone knows, probably the least effective commercial for their own work (any compliments they bestow upon it will be read as arrogance, any interpretation as self-indulgence)—and so even then, after years of writing and rewriting and editing and rejections, and then after the sometimes arduous path to publication, and then after finding a bunch of appropriate recipients, mailing it out, and waiting for some response—even after all that, let’s say one of those outlets reviews the novel, and gives it a blah rating or, worse, a bad one, and what a disheartening reward for years of dedicated hard work, made all the more depressing by the realization that more people probably read the tepid or lousy review of your book than the book itself. What a nightmare.
So the following debut novels are ones that over the last year or so have really stayed with me, moved me, compelled me, and in general felt especially deserving of acknowledgment and recognition. Some of these books have received some wide acclaim, some have benefited from major marketing pushes from their publishers, and some haven’t gotten the attention and the accolades they absolutely deserve. I truly hope all of these writers have long and flourishing careers in literature.
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