Earlier this week the longlist for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize was revealed. Containing a staggering 22 titles, this 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.
Any Resemblance to Actual Persons
By Kevin Allardice
In the spirit of Motherless Brooklyn or Remains of the Day, Allardice offers up a searing and memorable debut.
When Paul McWeeney’s older sister writes a book accusing their late father of committing the gruesome Black Dahlia murder, based on memories her new therapist has helped her recover, or imagine, he sits down to write a cease and desist letter to the publishers. Paul hopes to refute his sister’s claims about their father’s role in the infamous 1947 murder, arguing for his own divergent memory of their Hollywood childhood by way of defending their father’s name and legacy. But the letter begins to take on a life of its own, and Paul, a failed novelist and community college writing instructor, soon finds himself on an obsessive, elliptical exploration of both his family’s history and his own conflicted memory, which begins to absorb his daily life and threaten his relationships with those, closest to him. The letter becomes not the intended refutation but rather a disturbing and wildly comical psychological self-portrait of man caught between increasingly unstable versions of the past. (from the hardcover edition)
The Blood of Heaven
By Kent Wascom
The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.
The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut. (from the hardcover edition)
The Carriage House
By Louisa Hall
For more than thirty years, William Adair’s faith in life was based on two indisputable principles: the exceptional good looks and athletic talents of his three daughters and the historical status of his family in their Philadelphia suburb. After suffering a stroke, William wakes up in his hospital bed to realize that his world has collapsed: his children are less extraordinary than he had remembered and his family’s notable history has been forgotten.
William’s daughters—all tennis champions in their youth—are in decline. Having lost their father’s pride, the three sisters struggle to define themselves. Their mother, whose memory has started to fade, is unable to help them recall the talented girls they used to be.
For three generations, a carriage house has stood on the Adair property. Built by William’s grandfather, it was William’s childhood refuge and a sign of the family’s prominence. Now held captive by a neighbor due to a zoning error, the house has decayed beyond recognition and may even be condemned.
Rallying to save their father, Diana, Elizabeth, and Isabelle take on the battle for the carriage house that once stood as a symbol of their place in the world. Overcoming misunderstandings and betrayals both deep in the past and painfully new, each of the Adairs ultimately finds a place of forgiveness. The Carriage House is a moving, beautifully wrought debut novel about the complex bonds of siblings, about rebuilding lost lives, and about the saving grace of love. (From the hardcover edition)
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 Ryan McIlvain
Elder McLeod–outspoken, surly, a brash American–is nearing the end of his mission in Brazil. For nearly two years he has spent his days studying the Bible and the Book of Mormon, knocking on doors, teaching missionary lessons–”experimenting on the word.” His new partner is Elder Passos, a devout, ambitious Brazilian who found salvation and solace in the church after his mother’s early death. The two men are at first suspicious of each other, and their work together is frustrating, fruitless. That changes when a beautiful woman and her husband offer the missionaries a chance to be heard, to put all of their practice to good use, to test the mettle of their faith. But before they can bring the couple to baptism, they must confront their own long-held beliefs and doubts, and the simmering tensions at the heart of their friendship.
A novel of unsparing honesty and beauty, Elders announces Ryan McIlvain as a writer of enormous talent. (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)
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
By Matt Bell
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods tells the story of a newly married couple who take up a lonely existence in the title’s mythical location. In this blank and barren plot far from the world they’ve known, they mean to start the family the unnamed husband wants so obsessively. But their every pregnancy fails, and as their grief swells, the husband─a hot-tempered and impatient fisherman and trapper─attempts to prove his dominion in other ways, emptying both the lake and the woods of their many beasts. As the years pass, the wife changes too, her suddenly powerful voice singing some new series of objects into being, including a threatening moon hung above their house, its doomed weight already slowly falling, bending their now-starless sky.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is about marriage, parenthood, and the dreams parents have for their children─as well as what happens to a marriage whose success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the grief that marks their absence. (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 Next Time You See Me
By Holly Goddard Jones
Thirteen-year-old Emily Houchens doesn’t have many friends. She spends her time alone in the woods near her house – her safe place, until she finds the body of a young woman. Susanna Mitchell is searching for her sister, Ronnie, who vanished after leaving a late-night bar. The more she discovers about Ronnie’s life, the more she realises that her sister began to disappear long before she went missing. THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME is a brilliantly nuanced, psychologically astute debut that explores the fault-lines of a small community – their hidden desires and their other, secret selves. (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)
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow
By Rita Leganski
Conceived in love and possibility, Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. No one knows that Bonaventure’s silence is filled with resonance–a miraculous gift of rarified hearing that encompasses the Universe of Every Single Sound. Growing up in the big house on Christopher Street in Bayou Cymbaline, Bonaventure can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. He can also hear the gentle voice of his father, William Arrow, shot dead before Bonaventure was born by a mysterious stranger known only as the Wanderer. Bonaventure’s remarkable gift of listening promises salvation to the souls who love him: his beautiful young mother, Dancy, haunted by the death of her husband; his Grand-mère Letice, plagued by grief and a long-buried guilt she locks away in a chapel; and his father, William, whose roaming spirit must fix the wreckage of the past. With the help of Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole housekeeper endowed with her own special gifts, Bonaventure will find the key to long-buried mysteries and soothe a chorus of family secrets clamoring to be healed. (from the hardcover edition)
Southern Cross the Dog
By Bill Cheng
An epic odyssey in which a young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the pastWith clouds looming ominously on the horizon, a group of children play among the roots of the gnarled Bone Tree. Their games will be interrupted by a merciless storm–bringing with it the Great Flood of 1927–but not before Robert Chatham shares his first kiss with the beautiful young Dora. The flood destroys their homes, disperses their families, and wrecks their innocence. But for Robert, a boy whose family has already survived unspeakable pain, that single kiss will sustain him for years to come.
Losing virtually everything in the storm’s aftermath, Robert embarks on a journey through the Mississippi hinterland–from a desperate refugee camp to the fiery brothel Hotel Beau-Miel and into the state’s fearsome swamp, meeting piano-playing hustlers, well-intentioned whores, and a family of fierce and wild fur trappers along the way. But trouble follows close on his heels, fueling Robert’s conviction that he’s marked by the devil and nearly destroying his will to survive. And just when he seems to shake off his demons, he’s forced to make an impossible choice that will test him as never before. (From the hardcover edition)
By Alissa Nutting
Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her. But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession–fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.
In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship–car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods. Ever mindful of the danger–the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind–the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.
With crackling, rampantly unadulterated prose, Tampa is a grand, uncompromising, seriocomic examination of want and a scorching literary debut. (from the hardcover edition)
A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea
By Dina Nayeri
The heart-warming and uplifting novel about an Iranian girl who, separated from her mother and twin sister during the turmoil following the Iranian Revolution, invents a rich, imaginative world in which they live on. A book about identity – about finding your own and creating what you think you’re missing.
Growing up in a small fishing village in 1980s Iran, 11-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister, Mahtab, are fascinated by America. They keep lists of English words and collect contraband copies of Life magazine and Bob Dylan cassettes. So when Saba finds herself abandoned, alone with her father in Iran, she is certain that her mother and twin have moved to America without her.
All her life, Saba has been taught that ‘fate is written in the blood,’ which convinces her that twins will live the same life, even if separated by land and sea. As she grows up in the warmth and community of her local village, falls in and out of love, and struggles with the limited possibilities available to her as a woman in Iran, Saba envisions that there is another way for her story to unfold. She imagines a simultaneous, parallel life — a Western version, for her sister, filled with a freedom and control that Saba can only dream of.A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is told in a bewitching voice that mingles the rhythms of Eastern storytelling with straightforward Western prose, to tell a wholly original story about the importance of controlling your own fate. (From the hardcover edition)
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
By Kristopher Jansma
From as early as he can remember, the hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator of this ambitious debut novel has wanted to become a writer. From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s irresistible narrator will be inspired and haunted by the success of his greatest friend and rival in writing, the eccentric and brilliantly talented Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Julian’s enchanting friend, Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. After the trio has a disastrous falling out, desperate to tell the truth in his writing and to figure out who he really is, Jansma’s narrator finds himself caught in a never-ending web of lies. (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 Stuart Nadler
Almost overnight, Arthur Wise has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful attorneys in America. His first big purchase is a simple beach house in a place called Bluepoint, a town on the far edge of the flexed arm of Cape Cod.
It’s in Bluepoint, during the summer of 1952, that Arthur’s teenage son, Hilly, makes friends with Lem Dawson, a black man whose job it is to take care of the house but whose responsibilities quickly grow. When Hilly finds himself falling for Lem’s niece, Savannah, his affection for her collides with his father’s dark secrets. The results shatter his family, and hers.
Years later, haunted by his memories of that summer, Hilly sets out to find Savannah, in an attempt to right the wrongs he helped set in motion. But can his guilt, and his good intentions, overcome the forces of history, family, and identity? (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)
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
By Anton DiSclafani
It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country.
Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—and the major debut of an important new writer. (from the hardcover edition)
You Are One of Them
By Elliott Holt
Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends in an upscale part of Washington, DC, in the politically charged 1980s. Sarah is the shy, wary product of an unhappy home: her father abandoned the family to return to his native England; her agoraphobic mother is obsessed with fears of nuclear war. Jenny is an all-American girl who has seemingly perfect parents. With Cold War rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in 1982, the ten-year-old girls write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov asking for peace. But only Jenny’s letter receives a response, and Sarah is left behind when her friend accepts the Kremlin’s invitation to visit the USSR and becomes an international media sensation. The girls’ icy relationship still hasn’t thawed when Jenny and her parents die tragically in a plane crash in 1985.
Ten years later, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a mysterious letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny’s death might have been a hoax. She sets off to the former Soviet Union in search of the truth, but the more she delves into her personal Cold War history, the harder it is to separate fact from propaganda.You Are One of Them is a taut, moving debut about the ways in which we define ourselves against others and the secrets we keep from those who are closest to us. In this insightful forensic of a mourned friendship, Holt illuminates the long-lasting sting of abandonment and the measures we take to bring back those we have lost. (From the hardcover edition)
Have you read any of the twenty-two novels that are longlisted 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.