Paired down from 22 titles to just eight, the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize shortlist list serves to showcase the best debut fiction of the past year. For those unfamiliar with the prize, it is described as as follows on its official website:
The Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel of the year. The author of the winning book receives $10,000 and the other shortlisted authors receive $1,000 each. The award is given annually at The Center for Fiction’s Benefit and Awards Dinner. The Prize was originally established in 2005 as the John Sargent, Sr. First Novel Prize. The Center for Fiction board member and well-known non-fiction author, Nancy Dunnan, now funds The Center’s First Novel Prize. It is officially called the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, named after Nancy’s journalist father, Ray W. Flaherty.
Congratulations to all 22 nominees. Below you’ll find our closer look at each novel, with links to our full reviews where applicable.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
By Anthony Marra
A haunting novel set in a nearly abandoned hospital in war-torn Chechnya that is both intimate and ambitious in scope. Eight-year-old Havaa, Akhmed, the neighbour who rescues her after her father’s disappearance, and Sonia, the doctor who shelters her over 5 dramatic days in December 2004, must all reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal and forgiveness which unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate. In his bold debut, Anthony Marra proves that sometimes fiction can tell us the truth of the world far better, and far more powerfully, than any news story. You will not forget the world he creates–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and its characters will haunt you long after you turn the final page. (from the hardcover edition)
By Lea Carpenter
Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin Laden raid. Smart, young, and bohemian, Sara had dreams of an Ivy League university for Jason that were not out of reach, followed by a job on the Hill where there were connections through his father. The events of 9/11 changed Jason’s mind and Sara accepted that, steeping herself in all things military to better understand her son’s days, while she works as a freelance editor for Washington policy makers and wonks.
Now she knows nothing more about Jason’s fate than the crowds of well-wishers and media camped out in the driveway in front of her small farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, waiting to hear news. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s dashing absentee father, a man who said he was a writer but whose career seemed to involve being in faraway places. And through letters Jason writes home from his training and early missions, we get a picture of a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities. Those exceptional abilities will give Jason the chance to participate in a wholly different level of assignment, the most important and dangerous of his career. At the end Sara will find herself on an unexpected journey full of surprise.
This is a haunting narrative about a mother’s bond with her son; about life choices; about the military, war, and service to one’s country. Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story. (From the hardcover edition)
Ghana Must Go
By Taiye Selasi
Kweku Sai is dead. A renowned surgeon and failed husband, he succumbs suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of Kweku’s death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Ghana Must Go is their story. Electric, exhilarating, beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go is a testament to the transformative power of unconditional love, from a debut novelist of extraordinary talent.
Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts the Sais’ circuitous journey to one another. In the wake of Kweku’s death, his children gather in Ghana at their enigmatic mother’s new home. The eldest son and his wife; the mysterious, beautiful twins; the baby sister, now a young woman: each carries secrets of his own. What is revealed in their coming together is the story of how they came apart: the hearts broken, the lies told, the crimes committed in the name of love. Splintered, alone, each navigates his pain, believing that what has been lost can never be recovered—until, in Ghana, a new way forward, a new family, begins to emerge.
Ghana Must Go is at once a portrait of a modern family, and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are. In a sweeping narrative that takes us from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, Ghana Must Go teaches that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide. (from the hardcover edition)
By Christopher Hacker
The Morels─Arthur, Penny, and Will─are a happy family of three living in New York City. So why would Arthur choose to publish a book that brutally rips his tightly knit family unit apart at the seams? Arthur’s old schoolmate Chris, who narrates the book, is fascinated with this very question as he becomes accidentally reacquainted with Arthur. A single, aspiring filmmaker who works in a movie theater, Chris envies everything Arthur has, from his beautiful wife to his charming son to his seemingly effortless creativity. But things are not always what they seem.
The Morels takes a unique look at the power of art─literature, music and film in particular─and challenges us as readers to think about some fascinating questions to which there are no easy answers. Where is the line between art and obscenity, between truth and fiction, between revolutionary thinking and brainless shock value, between craftsmanship and commerce? Is it possible to escape the past? Can you save your family by destroying it? (from the hardcover edition)
By Kirstin Scott
MOTHERLUNGE is an eloquent and irreverent debut novel about first sex, true love, and chronic sibling rivalry; it’s about the deepest fear of young (and not-so-young) adulthood: the fear of inheriting a disappointing life. It’s motherly advice, too—featuring wigs, dogs, road trips, and medicine—a guide to the essential experiences of being female, “born unto a librarian, named for the goddess of sight,” waiting for the future to arrive. With sly wit and surprising joy, MOTHERLUNGE considers the flaws in the family line and celebrates the promise that staggers alongside. (from the hardcover edition)
The Residue Years
By Mitchell S. Jackson
Mitchell S. Jackson grew up black in a neglected neighborhood in America’s whitest city, Portland, Oregon. In the ’90s, those streets and beyond had fallen under the shadow of crack cocaine and its familiar mayhem. In his commanding autobiographical novel, Mitchell writes what it was to come of age in that time and place, with a break-out voice that’s nothing less than extraordinary.
The Residue Years switches between the perspectives of a young man, Champ, and his mother, Grace. Grace is just out of a drug treatment program, trying to stay clean and get her kids back. Champ is trying to do right by his mom and younger brothers, and dreams of reclaiming the only home he and his family have ever shared. But selling crack is the only sure way he knows to achieve his dream. In this world of few options and little opportunity, where love is your strength and your weakness, this family fights for family and against what tears one apart. (from the hardcover edition)
By Margaret Wrinkle
In this luminous debut, Margaret Wrinkle takes us on an unforgettable journey across continents and through time, from the burgeoning American South to West Africa and deep into the ancestral stories that reside in the soul. Wash introduces a remarkable new voice in American literature.
In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink. (from the hardcover edition)
By Marjorie Celona
“Y. That perfect letter. The wishbone, fork in the road, empty wineglass. The question we ask over and over. Why?…My life begins at the Y.”
So opens Marjorie Celona’s highly acclaimed, exquisite debut about a wise-beyond-her-years foster child abandoned as a newborn on the doorstep of the local YMCA. Bounced between foster homes, Shannon endures abuse and neglect until she finally finds stability with Miranda, a kind but no-nonsense single mother. Yet Shannon defines life on her own terms, refusing to settle down and continually longing to uncover her roots—especially the stubborn question of why her mother would abandon her on the day she was born.
Brilliantly and hauntingly interwoven with Shannon’s story is the tale of her mother, Yula, a girl herself, who is facing a desperate fate in the hours and days leading up to Shannon’s birth. As past and present converge, Y tells an unforgettable story of identity, inheritance, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Celona’s ravishingly beautiful novel, where “questions are not so much answered as extended” (The New York Times), offers a deeply affecting look at the choices we make and what it means to be a family. (From the hardcover edition)
Have you read any of the eight novels that are shortlisted for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know which titles to read, and which to avoid.