Reading lists

Great debut novels you might have missed in lockdown

Some of the most exciting emerging fiction writers emerged when it was impossible to get to the shop to browse. Here are a few of our favourites.

Image: Penguin
Image: Penguin

It's been a weird time for everyone under lockdown. But spare a thought for the debut authors who ploughed their hearts and souls into their first novels, only for bookshops to close and events, signings and festivals to be cancelled, just as they got published.

We are committed to supporting all aspects of the book industry during this uncertain time. So here is a selection of some of the best debut novels you may have missed during the lockdown.

The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Daré (5 March)

This visceral tale of domestic slavery tells the story of Adanni, a 14-year-old Nigerian village girl desperate for an education. Instead, she's sold into an abusive marriage to pay her father's debts. After a terrifying ordeal at the hands of her old “husband”, she escapes and finds work as a servant in an abusive household where her predecessor mysteriously disappeared.

Yet, despite facing many unimaginable horrors of subjugation and sexual exploitation, Adanni resolves to break free, to get a western education and find her “louding voice”. It is, in short, a vital and unforgettable celebration of triumph over horrifying adversity, and of what it takes to fight for the right to live life on one's own terms.

This Lovely City by Louise Hare (12 March)

“Everywhere you walked in London you could see tragedy through absence”

London is the lovely city in question. Only it's not that lovely for Laurie, a young Jamaican musician who's just arrived in post-War Brixton on the Empire Windrush. “Everywhere you walked in London you could see tragedy through absence,” he notes. He gets a job as a postman, while moonlighting as a nightclub jazz musician, and soon falls for the girl next door, a mixed-race Londoner named Evie.

But when he discovers a dead baby in a pond at Clapham Common, Laurie not only becomes the prime suspect of a murder he did not commit, but gets dragged into a dark web of racism and deceit that threatens to tear London – not to mention his and Evie's love – apart. Hare paints a painfully tender and thought-provoking portrait of immigrants struggling to belong in a country that needs them but doesn't seem to want them.

Hashim & Family by Shahnaz Ahsan (31 March)

This expansive new novel explores themes of family, migration and belonging across 20 years and two countries. It follows Hashim, who in 1960 leaves his native East Pakistan, and new wife Munira, and travels to England in search of riches. Soon he's in Manchester, shacked up with his cousin, Rofikul and his girlfriend Helen.

When Munira finally arrives, she hits it off instantly with Helen, and the group must navigate this brave new world to lay down roots for themselves as a family. Only, when a war of independence breaks out in their homeland (what will become Bangladesh), loyalties are tested and friendships strained. A powerful portrait of the migrant experience, and a celebration of cross-cultural friendship.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (12 April)

Having already earned comparisons to the work of Sally Rooney, Exciting Times sucks us into a vortex of millennial self-examination and insecurity, social confusion, friendship and female sexuality.

It follows Eva, a 22-year-old Dubliner transplanted into Hong Kong to teach English. When she meets posh English banker Julian, she's seduced by his money, but not his brash apathy towards her. Still, she moves in with him because he has a nice flat.

Then she meets Edith, a corporate lawyer from a well-off Hong Kong family who is everything Julian is not. What follows is an acerbically witty story of a love triangle that also delves into colonialism, language, race, class and the influence of technology on love and lust.

What’s Left of Me Is Yours by Stephanie Scott (21 April)

What starts as a crime drama morphs into a love story. But this bitingly humane debut novel is also based on a true story – that of a Japanese man who is hired by a divorce-hungry husband to seduce his wife and break up their marriage, only to end up falling in love with her.

So far so sexy, until the hired help murders her. The question Stephanie Scott asks is: can you really love someone and then kill them? It's a fascinating examination of the Japanese culture of “wakaresaseya" (literally "breaker-upper"), as well as a lovely tale of passion, possession and morality, told through multiple viewpoints, including the dead wife's now-grown-up daughter.

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez (30 April)

“When did you last read a novel about a young, black, gay, Jehovah Witness man from Wolverhampton who flees his community to make his way in London as a prostitute?” wrote Booker-winner Bernadine Evaristo of Paul Mendez's grippingly erotic debut.

It's a coming-of-age story about 19-year-old Jesse McCarthy who... well, see above. Mendez pulls no punches in describing the sex, racism and religious fervour Jesse encounters on his journey in what becomes a searingly immediate and gorgeously self-assured story about race, class and what it can take to find true freedom in a volatile world.

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