A collection of debut novels, viewed from the side, on a blue background
A collection of debut novels, viewed from the side, on a blue background

There's nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a new voice in fiction. Many authors get better with each new book, but there's usually something about debut novels – a certain fearlessness, a burst of energy and ideas – that makes them impossible to forget. What better gift than a new discovery?

There's the bragging rights – the oh my god, have you read it yet? factor – of being among the first to discover a new talent. Over the past year, that particular pleasure has been harder to come by than usual; the serendipitous stroll around the bookshop has been trickier; the word-of-mouth buzz difficult to catch.

Jump to: Thought-provoking reads | Historical fiction | Twisting Thrillers | Modern storytelling | Family drama | Love, friendship and summer fun

And so we've decided to celebrate a range of brilliant debut novels that may have passed you by this year, from engrossing historical fiction to beautiful portraits of contemporary life; joyful tales of love and friendship to nail-biting thrillers. If you've loved them, why not buy another copy for a friend, giving you something wonderful to catch up on in the new year. 

Thought-provoking reads

Keisha the Sket by Jade LB

It's almost difficult to remember that Jade LB is a debut author. The creator of Keisha the Sket was a teenager when her stories about growing up Black and poor on the estates of Hackney went viral through email and text message in the early Noughties. Nearly two decades later, Keisha has entered into the literary canon in book form, with both the original, a revisited version and essays from contemporary thinkers and writers on the impact of Jade LB's work. 

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson 

Centuries after Thomas Jefferson set up home at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a few years from now, a group of Black and brown friends, families and strangers from the city's First Street neighbourhood arrive after fleeing white supremacists. A time of rolling blackouts and turbulent weather, this near-future nightmare plays out over 19 tense days in the former president's home. Told from the perspective of Da'Naisha Love, a Black descendent of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, My Monticello is a blistering reflection of today's society.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

One of the most talked about debuts of the year belongs to Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose tender novella, telling the story of a young Black artist falling in love, made waves with both readers and fellow authors such as Candice Carty-Williams, Yaa Gyasi and more. Writing in a style that weaves a line between prose and verse, Nelson paints a moving portrait of Black creativity, nodding to artists across a multitude of media – music, dance and, of course, poetry and literature – while illuminating the ways the world (and city life in particular) too often squeeze softness out of young men. 

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

Set over 2018, when climate change dominated the headlines, Brexit continued to divide a nation and the Grenfell tragedy highlighted social inequality, Three Rooms follows a young woman as she begins her professional career at a society magazine. The contract is temporary and her rent budget only stretches to a stranger's sofa, which leads her to question: What is it all for? Jo Hamya's debut speaks to a generation of underpaid and overworked young people with prospects of job security and homeownership a distant dream while trying to establish their place.

Interviews with an Ape by Felice Fallon

Sometimes the simplest premise is the most powerful. In Felice Fallon’s timely and inventive debut novel Interviews with an Ape, she imagines the life of a gorilla called Einstein who can communicate with humans through sign language and tells the stories of other vulnerable creatures from throughout the animal kingdom, all of which have a real-world significance that’s heartbreakingly clear. And, as one might imagine, the novel is less about Einstein than humanity’s relationship to animals, the natural world and, ultimately, ourselves.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

There have been a number of excoriating books about motherhood published in recent years. Avni Doshi’s debut Burnt Sugar made the 2020 Booker shortlist with its breathtaking portrayal of ambivalent motherhood, while Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh examined parental longing. If you enjoyed either, then prepare yourself for Rachel Yoder’s provocative novel, which has already been snapped up for a film adaptation starring Amy Adams. Yoder drew on her own experiences of loneliness and isolation in early motherhood to create a fantastical and bold concept: that of an artist who, wrenched from her creative work by her infant, turns into a dog to better connect with the sense of self she has lost.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

The 1972 Ugandan-Asian expulsion forms the historical backbone of this novel by the inaugural Merky Book New Writer’s Prize winner Hafsa Zayyan, which deftly balances the changing political landscape of mid-century Uganda with the present day. Muslim millennial Sameer must choose between a jet-set career path as a lawyer or an ineffable tug to his heritage. By entwining his narrative with that of his grandfather, Zayyan paints a heartfelt and hopeful portrait of colonialism, choice and culture.

Teeth in the Back of my Neck by Monika Radojevic

One of two young authors, alongside Hafsa Zayyan, to win the inaugural #Merky Books New Writer Prize in 2020, poet Monika Radojevic has now made her debut with the highly anticipated collection Teeth in the Back of my Neck. Already being hailed as one of the best debuts of the year, it finds Radojevic boldly confronting what it means to hail from a modern diaspora, and how profoundly one’s identity – and the world’s perception of that identity – is shaped by it. Alternately harrowing and joyous, Radojevic’s ability to mine beauty from such tension has made her an exciting young poet to watch.

Historical fiction

Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee 

Witches and witchcraft have proved a rich seam of literary inspiration in recent years, with titles including Pine by Francine Toon and Alexis Henderson’s Year of the Witching captivating readers. If you were among them, Elizabeth Lee’s pertinent and spirited novel needs to get on your to-read pile. Cunning Women is set at the time of the Pendle Witch Trials, in 17th-century Lancashire. Sarah Haworth and her family are village outcasts in spite of their skills with healing balms and secret-keeping. But when she falls in love with a neighbouring lad, she becomes determined to save their daughter from the ostracism faced by her mother and every generation of women since.

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams

Hope Adams spotted the genesis of her fascinating thriller in the most unlikely of places: a quilt, hanging quietly in the V&A gallery in London. The Rajah Quilt, she learned from the information plaque, had been sewn on board the ship Rajah, which was transporting female convicts from London to Australia in 1841. Among the passengers was a 23-year-old matron, Kezia, who fell in love with – and became engaged to – the captain over the course of the ship’s passage. 

Instead of a love story, Adams opts for a darker telling of the story: Dangerous Women is a masterfully-paced hunt for a secret killer on board – a meticulous murder mystery from which nobody can escape. 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Who gets to decide which words make the history books, and which ones remain in the market, the kitchen, the scullery – or worse, get lost altogether? A group of men in the late 19th-century, mostly. Pip Williams’ engrossing debut transports the reader back to the Scriptorium, a grandly-named shed tucked away in Oxford’s Summertown where a dedicated team of linguists painstakingly pulled together the first Oxford English Dictionary. Over the decades, as our heroine Esme grows up from beneath the Scriptorium table into a revolutionary academic in her own right, Williams covers the Suffrage movement and the First World War while a love story plays out across her pages – one of words, and between Esme and the man who would change what they mean.

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

Described as a "darkly delightful Gothic treasure" by The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins, Victoria Mas’ debut became a bestselling sensation in her native France winning several prestigious prizes. It won't take long for you to understand why.

Set in the infamous Salpêtrière asylum in 1885, Mas picks one momentous night for the fates of two very different women to change as the Parisian elite and the patients of the asylum collide during The Mad Women’s Ball.

Twisting Thrillers

When They Find Her by Lia Middleton

Lia Middleton’s debut is the kind of white-knuckle emotional thriller a new author can make their name on. In When They Find Her, protagonist Naomi is a proud mother – but her separation from her husband three years ago means she hasn’t seen her daughter in ages. When said daughter comes to stay, it’s a chance to reconnect and rebuild the family she’s always wanted, but on their first night together something terrible happens – and Naomi has no memory of it. Frantically, she lies to herself, and the world, that her daughter has gone missing. In the gripping story of Naomi’s unravelling, Middleton explores the deepest fears of motherhood and marriage, making this a must-read for any reader seeking a thriller with an emotional core.

The Upper World by Femi Fadugba

Femi Fadugba’s goal for his debut novel was to “craft a journey gripping enough that the nerds, the mandem – and the rest of us in between – would all want to read”. It seems he’s achieved just that: The Upper World, soon to be turned into a Netflix series co-produced by Daniel Kaluuya, tells the story of Esso, a young man in modern day Peckham who, discovering he can see the future, is haunted by visions of a bullet fired in an alleyway. A generation into the future, 15-year-old Rhia might just be affected by the same things Esso sees. Hooked yet? There’s a reason this is one of the year’s most anticipated YA novels.

Damage by Caitlin Wahrer

How far would you go to protect your own family? That's the question asked by former lawyer Caitlin Wahrer in her fearlessly twisting and provocative thriller, Damage. Set in a small North American town, Damage explores the events in the aftermath of a sexual assault. This compulsive psychological thriller pivots around three ordinary people who find their lives in disarray after a tragedy that none of them can quite get a grip on. When the detective starts to investigate, the cracks begin to show.

Modern storytelling

An Experiment in Leisure by Anna Glendenning

Endorsed by none other than Maxine Peake – lest anyone should doubt for a second An Experiment in Leisure’s Northern credentials – this novel tells the story of Grace, a young graduate from West Yorkshire making the time-honoured Big Move to London to find her future. What Glendenning portrays so brilliantly is the contradictions of early adulthood, when intense loneliness and a chaotic social life somehow co-exist, and every step towards figuring out who you are seem to involve tripping over your feet. Like many great debut novels, it somehow manages to capture the universality of being young while also managing to be utterly unique.

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Few debuts come as highly touted as Natasha Brown’s white-hot Assembly. Deemed “Virgina Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway meets Citizen by Claudia Rankine” by fellow author Olivia Sudjic and “utterly captivating” by Bernardine Evaristo, Brown’s first novel is a sharply observed, impressionistic snapshot of life as a young Black woman as she faces the hellish banality of modern life at the intersection of casual racism, workplace sexism, and crushing neoliberalism. At a taut 100 pages, it's a quick read that will leave a long-lasting impact.

Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney

In Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles, young dreamer Mary Rattigan is feeling trapped: by her overbearing mother; her distant father; by bombs, bullets, and conflict – and 25 years later, not much has changed. Yet the escape, and the ‘Land of Happy Ever After’ Mary has sought her whole life isn’t quite out of reach.

A tender, funny, and exquisitely rendered story of triumph and perseverance, Tish Delaney’s debut novel – about the power of chosen family and the unconventional ways love can find us – is so beautiful and moving we said it ‘feels like a hug’.

Acts of Desperation by Meg Nolan

Drawing on her own experiences of unhealthy romantic dynamics, Meghan Nolan's novel explores the toxic relationship between the narrator, who remains nameless throughout, and her boyfriend Ciaran. As our heroine descends further into the belief Ciaran is the entire reason for living, her life slowly falls apart. Described by Karl Ove Knausgaard as "a love story like no other…intense and honest", Acts of Desperation is already one of most celebrated and talked-about debuts of the year.

Family drama

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Miranda Cowley Heller knows a thing or two about what makes a good story. The senior vice president and head of drama series at HBO, Cowley Heller oversaw shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire. Her celebrated debut The Paper Palace follows the story of Elle Bishop as she plunges into the freshwater pond in the grounds of her family's holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives deeper, a memory of a passionate encounter with her childhood sweetheart surfaces. As the story plays-out over 24 hours and across 50 years, decades of family secrets, tension and a devastating tragedy lead Elle to a life-changing decision.

King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett

Childhood and legacy are the central topics in Karla Neblett’s beautifully simple novel about Kai, a bright-eyed boy in a mixed-race family with an addict for a mother and a criminal for a dad. Raised by other women in his life, Kai finds refuge in the wild escape offered by the woods. But can good intentions and the sanctuary of nature steer him away from a seemingly inevitable path towards tragedy?

A youth worker for many years, Somerset-based Neblett drew upon her own experience to tell the story of society’s all-too-often overlooked members. Having completed an MA in creative writing, she strove to write a book that her own brothers and semi-literate father could read; in King of Rabbits she has created a startling debut.

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

As much about the stories we leave untold as those we tell, Catherine Menon’s extraordinary Fragile Monsters explores what she calls the “slippery play between truth and stories”. In this gripping debut, protagonist Durga visits her grandmother, Mary, in Malaysia, where she’s met with rigid silence about the traumatic events of Mary’s life: about the Japanese occupation of their country, and about what happened to her daughter – Durga’s mother – during the war. As Mary begins to trust Durga, their relationship opens up, and the two women put the pieces of their family history together to find meaning and redemption in their shared past.

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline

When she's not writing, author Harriet Kline registers births, deaths and marriages for a living – meaning she's well aquainted with life-changing moments. This Shining Life has plenty of them: after the diagnosis of a fatal brain tumour threatens to rip a family apart, a mother and son piece together the remnants left by the man they loved – Rich, a brilliant father who has left a string of unconnected gifts for the people he leaves behind. In discovering them, and trying to uncover their meaning, his widow and son find new ways of living in this deeply poignant and uplifting book.

Love, friendship and summer fun

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

An odd-couple story that feels particularly poignant after this past year, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot sees 17-year-old Lenni and 83-year-old Margot brought together on a terminal ward where they realise they’ve lived 100 years between them and embark on a special art project to celebrate it. A beautifully delivered paean to the power of friendship and the way humour can cross generational divides, despite the sad setting this novel is full of laughs and life-affirming moments that may remind you of other, similarly powerful; novels that take a glance over the shoulder at life, such as The Five People You Meet In Heaven and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee

If you’re after true escapism this summer (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) Robinne Lee’s immersive debut has plenty. The actress-turned-author offers up a potent mix in The Idea of You: a Romeo and Juliet-style love affair, only with Juliet a 39-year-old mother and ex-wife who has lost herself along the way, and the Romeo an international sex symbol and boyband front man. Our heroine Solène Marchand must navigate this new love against a dizzying backdrop of fame, social media scrutiny and – worst of all – her own daughter’s fandom over her new boyfriend. No wonder Vogue called it ‘the sleeper hit of the pandemic'. 

Dog Days by Ericka Waller

One for lovers of canines, unpredictable plots and brilliantly drawn characters, Ericka Waller’s virtuoso debut is a triple-hander about three very different people united by one eternal truth: however bad things get in life, a dog can make it better. George is a elderly misanthrope dealing with grief, Dan is a counsellor with OCD who is better at giving advice than taking it, and Lizzie – the complex heart of the novel – is living in a women’s refuge and dealing with her own traumatic past. Dog Days is a debut that never goes quite where you think it is, and is brimming with empathy and insight for its protagonists.

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent

Disgruntled with her own messy life in London, Birdy Finch decides to accept a summer position as a sommelier under Michelin-star chef Russell Brooks in a swanky Scottish Hotel. The small problem is that the job was intended for her best friend Heather, the bigger problem is that Birdy is not a world-class wine expert. And while she might be able to hoodwink her boss – sort of – can she keep the deception going as she begins to fall in love? Lauded by Marian Keyes as 'engaging, heart-warming and so much fun,' and due to hit our small screens soon, this is the perfect summer escape to add to your reading pile. 

The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman by Julietta Henderson

Jax and Norman are 12-year-old boys with a big ambition – to take their comedy double act to the Edinburgh Fringe. But after Jax dies tragically, Norman is left to process a grief he can hardly understand. Determined to see through his friend's dream, Norman decides he will take a one man show instead, and with his number one fan in tow – his mum Sadie. So begins a road trip north described by Romesh Ranganathan "as moving as it is funny. And it's very funny" and Ruth Jones claims "one of those gorgeous books that completely lifts your spirits and restores your faith in humanity".

No Such Thing as Perfect by Emma Hughes

Emma Hughes explores the complexities of modern dating in her sharply-observed debut which has been described as 'the perfect blend of uplifting escapism and social satire' by author Daisy Buchanan. The story follows Laura who uses the opportunity to test a new dating app to find her perfect match. Enter Adam. Handsome, intelligent and kind - he is the man of Laura's dreams - or so she believes until she realises she is falling for the guy who made the algorithm that brought them together. 

The Mismatch by Sara Jafari

In her debut novel Sara Jafari shows a preternatural knack for weaving the nuances of modern life into literature’s oldest subject: love. In The Mismatch, we're introduced to 21-year-old Soraya who, in a quest to experience her first kiss, targets the popular, confident Magnus – Soraya’s total opposite, and someone she is at no risk of falling for. Meanwhile, at home, Soraya’s mother is on a quest of her own to make peace with living in the UK, having left Iran behind decades ago. As each mismatch informs the other, Jafari braids together two cultural histories into one poignant, utterly contemporary love story.

Another Life by Jodie Chapman

Like a modern Romeo and Juliet, Jodie Chapman’s debut novel centres on lovers from two different worlds, pulled apart by upbringing and brought together, seemingly, by fate. Hued in shades of melancholy and nostalgia – Chapman has said the book’s mood was informed by Don Draper’s Kodak pitch in Mad Men, in which he describes nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone” – and built along the fault line of a romance that would require colossal concessions from both sides, Another Life is a sophisticated love story that reflects a realistic, often tragic world.  

All of the debuts in our selection are available for purchase here at Bookshop.org, where you can buy the books at great prices while supporting indies.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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