Genre round-up — the best debut fiction

When we look for debut novels to get a glimpse of contemporary issues, as of Generation X, Z or whatever generation we are today, the perspective often seems bleak. Relationship crises, self-esteem destroyed by social media, persistent hopelessness in terms of housing and permanent employment simmer under the pages. It is a relief that there is also plenty of wit, energy and ingenuity to be felt.

Book cover of Lillian Fishman's

At least Eve, the narrator of acts of service by Lillian Fishman (Europe Editions £12.99), no need to worry about a roof over your head. A wealthy father in Massachusetts initially reluctantly supports her carefree, frugal New York existence. In contrast to Eve’s odd job at a local coffee shop, her devoted friend Romi (“selfless, loving, great in bed”) is a hard-working paramedic. Eve stands on the cusp: old enough to settle down, but young enough to believe there is still time for more adventures. Spontaneously, she secretly posts three nude photos online and waits for an answer.

Olivia’s polite, shy invitation for a drink is immediately appealing, but what the young woman then proposes isn’t at all what Eve expected or wanted: a threesome with her handsome boyfriend. To get what she wants – Olivia – Eve must somehow climb above rich, assured Nathan. The account of this unequal love triangle becomes a passionate questioning of the imperatives and etiquette of lust. The erotic passages, while intense, aren’t really the point; this reads like a hip, modern update of the Marquis de Sade, with philosophical reflections and power struggle analysis alongside discarded underwear.

Book cover of Aravind Jayan's

Aravind Jayans Teenage couple have fun outdoors (Serpent’s Tail £12.99) sounds like the main characters are having more fun, at least initially. Young lovers Sreenath and Anita were filmed kissing and the video was posted online. In the past this would have brought shame and ignominy, certainly for Anita, but this is modern India, where the tech-savvy youth are teaching their elders new ways. Sree’s brother, torn between jealousy and admiration, tells a breezy tale of conflict between generations, with an overriding order of class consciousness. Her parents, who don’t even have words to describe the event (“It’s a bad video”), are trying to keep up with all the nosy, unrelated uncles and aunts in their upscale neighborhood. A light-hearted story slowly takes on a darker, sadder tone as the effects of the scandal sink in.

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The central character has a refreshing sharpness Delphi, the first novel by acclaimed poet Clare Pollard (Fig Tree £12.99). It’s the peak of the pandemic and omens are everywhere. The heroine is an academic researching ancient prophetesses, and her husband and young son are appropriately, perhaps ominously named Jason and Xander. She even masturbates while fantasizing about Zeus as a swan. The university issues trigger warnings: “Nobody bans Ovid. We’re just saying that might get a little raped.” (Pollard’s latest version of Ovid’s Heroides is a new perspective on the unjustly treated women of antiquity.)

Book cover of Claire Pollard's Delphi

As she worries more and more about Xander’s missed schooling and resents Jason’s constant, chafing presence, she consults tarot cards and contemplates the many modern and ancient forms of divination: Turifumy, through forms shaped in smoke; entomomancy and nephomancy by insects and clouds, respectively; Videomancy, “Prophecy through electronic visual medium”. Nothing helps against the unstoppable advance of the virus. Delphi is a furious, witty, sometimes desperate account of a woman’s lockdown – though not, as the afterword assures us, the author’s.

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On a hot night in an Indiana cul-de-sac apartment block, Blandine, formerly Tiffany, a young girl obsessed with Hildegard von Bingen “leaves her body”. While we wait to find out exactly what that means, we meet the rest of La Lapinière’s eccentric residents, known informally as The rabbit hutch (Oneworld £16.99). Author Tess Gunty has the breadth and poignancy of David Foster Wallace without the obscurantism and intentionally slow pace. The deranged character who ambushes people at night while covered in the liquid from glowsticks is a particularly effective creation. With her sophisticated analyzes of modern culture, Blandine sometimes doesn’t sound like an authentic teenager; but I’m adamant the brilliant Gunty was once exactly the same.

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Over on the campus of a snooty US college – with Elaine Hsieh Chou disorientation (Picador £14.99) – Clueless narrator Ingrid Yang stumbles through a light-hearted satire of student activism and academic pandemonium. Pushed by her white supervisor to write her doctoral thesis on a famous Chinese-American poet, Ingrid feels completely uninspired until a bizarre message inserted into the archives alerts her to a decades-long academic fraud, the Ghosts of Yellowface and raises alt-right demagogy. Surveillance, burglary and identity theft become Ingrid’s weapons against the bias she suddenly sees everywhere – even at home.

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