As a debut novelist this year with The Road to Winter, I know well the trepidation first time authors feel when their baby is released into the clutches of the reading public. Whether it’s waiting for that first review, hoping at least family and friends turn up to your launch, coming to grips with maintaining an “author platform” or dealing with interviewers, it’s a whole new, exciting world to negotiate. Every published writer is a debut writer sometime and here are my top recent debuts. They’re mostly Australian – and mostly fiction.
SKYLARKING by KATE MILDENHALL
From the first description of the remote lighthouse on the Australian east coast, Kate Mildenhall had me on a string with this part coming-of-age story, part historical tragedy. The friendship between Harriet and Kate drives the narrative while the character of McPhail hovers on the periphery, driving a wedge between them. The landscape is a character in itself and the changing relationship between Harriet and Kate is beautifully drawn.
THE DRY by JANE HARPER
Yeah, I know, but I’m on the bandwagon, too. There’s almost a sub-genre here in the damaged cop returning to their hometown, a mystery in the past and a recent murder (think Peter Temple, Gary Disher), but Harper’s characters are as true and dry as the drought-ridden landscape and the plot plays out in unexpected ways. No wonder it has won such critical acclaim.
Set in Colombo, a mixed Sinhalese Tamil family comes to grips with a changing country in the aftermath of the civil war. Told in alternating chapters by five different members of the Herath family, each of them flawed in some way, Ruins explores race, culture, intergenerational conflict and personal loyalty in Savanadasa’s acclaimed debut.
THEIR BRILLIANT CAREERS by RYAN O’NEILL
A brilliant piss-take in the guise of sixteen fictitious Australian writers’ biographies that meld invented stories with recognisable events and authors. The stories are all linked in some way and there are genuine laugh out loud moments. Amid the seriousness and angst of much recent literature, this book stands out for its inventiveness and audacity.
FINE by MICHELLE WRIGHT
Having followed Michelle Wright’s career since her first breakthrough, winning The Age Short Story Competition with Maggot, it’s a delight to see her stories – 33 in all – collected here for the first time. Wright understands brevity and has the ability to capture a moment and draw us into it, pulling strings we didn’t know existed and holding us there just long enough – and never a second too long – to understand what we need to of the characters and their worlds.
A highlight of my reading year, this is a stunning debut and a master class in voice. Sixteen-year-old Elka drives the narrative as she retreats into the wilds of British Columbia after the Big Stupid, a limited nuclear war that has regressed society to almost-colonial times. Elka is on the run from Trapper, who raised her from the age of seven but who hid deep and horrific secrets from her. Buy it. Read it. You won’t regret it.
QUOTA by JOCK SERONG
Although it’s been out for a couple of years now, this still sticks with me as great debut crime novel. Charlie Jardim has destroyed his legal career with a massive courtroom meltdown, his girlfriend has left him and he’s on his way to the coastal town of Dauphin to investigate a murder set against the abalone trade. Serong expertly captures the small town milieu with its politics, secrets and compromised family loyalties, while never allowing the narrative pace to slacken. I loved it.
How do you categorise a collection as inventive and varied as Portable Curiosities – absurdist, satirical, analytical and at times so real the characters seem to jump off the page – like those leaping off the screen in the stand-out story, The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man? I loved this collection for its audacity and its biting commentary on Australian culture and history.
THE HATE RACE by MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE
Okay, it’s technically not a debut following on the heels of Foreign Soil, but this memoir dealing with Clarke’s upbringing in an Afro Caribbean family in Sydney’s west, is deeply affecting and memorable for its depiction of the racism that sits close to the surface in Australia. The power of this book is not so much in the overt racism it describes but in the constant, insidious, systemic prejudice it exposes in everyday life. It’s a catch phrase but, like Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, it’ a book every Australian should read.