Spiritual awakenings and transformative grief animate this season’s debut novels.

A Family Affair

Leigh Abramson

“For me, law school was a kind of a rebellion, which is unusual,” says Leigh Abramson, who grew up in Manhattan and received her JD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her father and mother are an illustrator and a children’s book author, respectively, which steered her away from the arts—at least at first. “I didn’t want to be in their world,” she explains.

Abramson enjoyed the “theoretical and cerebral” side of law school but found less satisfaction as a corporate litigator. She later worked for seven years as a judicial clerk before publishing an article in the Atlantic about counselors helping lawyers transition to new careers. Abramson, who lives in New York City and Vermont, soon left the law profession to become a writer.

“You’re a lawyer if you go every day to your office,” she says. “But when I first started out saying I’m a writer, I felt like, is it okay to say that?” She had written a novel about a law firm but shelved it in favor of another project, which began with the idea of a family whose members have various artistic ambitions.

That second book turned into A Likely Story (Atria, Mar.). It follows an unpublished novelist named Isabelle Manning, whose father is a famous and egotistical writer. When Isabelle’s mother dies, she leaves to Isabelle a manuscript that reveals her own thwarted artistic ambition, an inheritance that is both a revelation and a means to advance Isabelle’s career.

Loan Le, senior editor at Atria, notes that Abramson “deeply understands that characters aren’t meant to be perfect,” adding, “if they were perfect, they wouldn’t be human.”

Abramson’s agent, Stefanie Lieberman at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, adds, “It’s impossible not to feel emotionally connected to the world she has created and to the people who live in it.”

The novel highlights gendered constraints on artistic production. Abramson notes that Jenny Offil’s novel Dept. of Speculation powerfully captures this phenomenon. “It’s about the idea of being able to be completely devoted to your art,” she says. “And I think—not to be overly broad—that men are often better at creating a situation in which they can just focus on their art.”

On the Road Again

Brendan Shay Basham

After nine years running a seafood restaurant in Puerto Rico, Brendan Shay Basham developed a new vocabulary for his sensory perceptions. “I was surrounded by colors and sound and screams and squishy and stinky things,” he says.

Basham’s long-simmering desire to write, as well as his lingering grief over his brother’s death, led him to question his career path. “I was losing my mind in the kitchen and becoming one of those asshole chefs that I never wanted to become in the first place,” he recalls. “I started recognizing that I had to come back to writing.”

Basham was born in Alaska and grew up on and around the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. After leaving Puerto Rico and traveling a bit in the States, he enrolled in the MFA program at the American Indian Institute of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, N.Mex. He currently teaches at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Swim Home to the Vanished (Harper, June) doubles as a magic-realist tale of mourning and an eco-fable. Damien, a young Diné man, heads south from the Pacific Northwest after his brother disappears, traversing mountains and deserts and following an internal pull toward the sea. He ultimately reaches an insular, Lovecraftian village presided over by a formidable family, where a once plentiful supply of fish has dried up.

Basham is “unafraid to plumb the depths of the human psyche,” says Millicent Bennett, executive editor at Harper, adding that he takes readers “beyond the familiarity of the known world and into a reality both stranger and more true.”

In one of the novel’s many phantasmagoric touches, Damien sprouts gills. “I was trying to write about the change caused by grief and my trauma,” Basham says. “I was writing into that darkness and solace of sadness, drawing from the well of whatever memories of my brother I had left.”

Life Model

Monica Brashears

Monica Brashears grew up in a very small town nestled in the mountains of Tennessee, where she was steeped in Appalachian folktales. She also devoured Stephen King and later majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. “That’s what Stephen King did,” Brashears jokes.

The combined folk and horror influences permeate House of Cotton (Flatiron, Apr.), an eerie, mordant, and affecting tale of racial and class divisions. Brashears’s agent, Hafizah Augustus Geter at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, was struck by the writer’s distinctive phrasing. “ ‘Casket-serious’ and ‘dark as debt’ halted me in my tracks,” Geter says, adding that she was impressed by the way Brashears’s lyrical prose “conjures ghosts, fairy tales, the Black South, and the power of women.”

Magnolia, broke and reeling from the death of her grandmother at 19, works at a gas station, a job Brashears herself had throughout college. Looking back on those years, Brashears relishes the broad range of people she encountered. “What I really loved about working there is that no one can avoid the gas station,” she recalls. “Every class, every race, every experience.”

Desperate for cash, Magnolia accepts an unusual modeling job for an outfit called Cotton and Eden Productions, named after two members of an old-money Southern family who operate out of their funeral parlor. Grieving people pay Cotton, a self-professed seer, exorbitant sums to arrange seances with their dead or missing loved ones, while Cotton’s aunt Eden, a “cosmetic savant,” makes up Magnolia to look like them. Magnolia, who has an uncanny ability to inhabit her roles, is drawn deeper into the orbit of the creepy and controlling duo. “It speaks to what it means to be a poor Black woman in the South and be employed and having to survive in a specifically white space,” Brashears says.

Brashears, who attended the MFA program at Syracuse, credits a workshop with George Saunders for “unlocking” something in her work. “He talked about patterns and repetitions, and recognizing early drafts as your subconscious already knowing how the story’s going to go,” she says. “That made writing less scary and showed me that I had more control than I realized.”

A Dream and a Prayer

Stephen Buoro

Uninterested in modesty, the Nigerian narrator of Stephen Buoro’s exuberant debut, The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa (Bloomsbury, Apr.), describes himself as a “fifteen-year-old African genius poet altar boy.” Furthermore, as the narrator tells readers in the novel’s first lines, “I love white girls. Especially blondes.” This is a problem for the narrator, given that, according to his calculations, “there are -0.0001 blondes” on the continent.

Bouro’s agent, Niki Chang at David Higham Associates, was “intrigued by this opening gambit,” she says. “Would he be able to pull off such a provocative setup without lapsing into cliché? I wasn’t disappointed.”

The novel chronicles Andy’s enraptured pursuit of a visiting blond teenage girl as he navigates the religious tensions flaring up between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim communities, composes poetry, and uncovers a zealously guarded family secret about the father he never knew.

Buoro was born in southern Nigeria, where his northern Nigerian parents had fled following political conflict. Later, his family returned north and eventually settled in Kontagura, where the novel is set. He attended missionary school and developed an interest in poetry and mathematics. He taught high school math before pursuing a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia.

The novel’s five sections are titled after the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary—prayers keyed to the last days of Christ—and have epigraphs drawn from permutation theory. Of this schematic framework, Buoro says, “Three systems—religion, mathematics, poetry—determined my entire emotional upbringing. I eventually realized that these systems are not at odds with one another but pathways for examining Africa and the scope of my character’s experiences.”

Five Sorrowful Mysteries revels in wild, satirical theorizations about the continent, with one character positing that Africa is a computer simulation and another devising a “Tetragrammaton shorthand for the Curse of Africa.” Buoro explains how duality is a central theme: “Andy is running away from or ashamed to a certain extent of his African self.”

This complex portrait of “internalized shame” impressed Daniel Loedel, senior editor at Bloomsbury, who describes Buoro as a “wunderkind who can handle tragedy, humor, emotions, and ideas all in the same effervescent, youthful, extremely intelligent way.”


Jinwoo Chong

“I don’t know if I would ever write a novel as complicated ever again,” Jinwoo Chong says of his debut, Flux (Melville House, Mar.), which involves massive corporate fraud, a 1980s cop show, and time loops. “It was honestly pretty stressful to figure it out,” he adds, though he made it through by drawing on his long-established writing habits. While growing up in New Jersey, he began writing for an hour every day after school from the age of 10. “I don’t really have much of a problem with sticking to projects.”

Chong’s agent, Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic, praises Flux for its ambition and execution, saying, “This novel shoots for the moon and lands, while remaining grounded and tender.”

Flux unspools along three timelines. In the 1980s, a young child, Bo, witnesses his mother’s death in a traffic accident; some 20 years later, a young man named Brandon is recruited by a massively hyped energy startup that subjects him to unethical neurological experiments that potentially alter the nature of space-time; and decades after that, Blue, a victim of the company’s practices, participates in a news program about its collapse. The stories and protagonists all fold into one another.

Chong, who worked in the marketing and sales department of several magazines before enrolling in the Columbia MFA program, recalls reading Bad Blood, John Carreyou’s account of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes, and being fascinated by “the insidiousness of a lie that gets spun by just terrible people, plus the media.” He wanted to capture the bullheadedness of corrupt CEOs, who, in his view, “just bullshit constantly and seem like they’re in such control.”

The eponymous hero of the fictional 1980s show Raider, a righteous figure of antiquated masculinity, occupies a critical position in the traumatized psyches of the three protagonists. The show is canceled before resolving a second-season cliffhanger, which allows Chong to meditate on the afterlives of cultural artifacts and on fandoms left adrift. Discussing real-life cult classics like Firefly, which was similarly curtailed, Chong says, “Their fandoms are like, well, what are we supposed to do now? And I feel like I was trying to portray that sort of aimlessness in the characters.”

Learning to Deal

Melissa Coss Aquino

When Melissa Coss Aquino was growing up in the Bronx with her grandmother, she became an avid reader, partly, she says, because if her grandmother saw her reading a book, she could get out of doing chores. Her father, whom she didn’t live with but who was very involved in her upbringing, received his high school diploma at 60 and also stressed the importance of education. Coss Aquino recalls him telling his daughters, “I don’t want to hear about wedding gowns—I want to hear about graduation gowns.”

The value of learning is evident in Carmen and Grace (Morrow, Apr.), a dramatic saga of a women-run drug dealing ring in the Bronx called the Daughters of Durka, as it also features a tale of continuing education by nontraditional means. Grace, the steely-eyed leader, insists that the Daughters enrich themselves educationally and encourages them to find strength in feminist spiritual traditions ranging from Catholic saints to the Hindu goddess Ma Durga.

Coss Aquino has been an educator for decades, teaching GED, ESL, and college test prep courses and running education programs in labor unions. She enrolled in an MFA program at age 36 and a PhD program at 42, both in New York City, writing her thesis on American autobiography. “I tell people I wrote an entire dissertation just to give myself permission to write my novel,” she says, laughing. She’s now an associate professor of English at Bronx Community College.

The novel describes how the formidable bond between two childhood friends, Carmen and Grace, is tested after Carmen, pregnant and in love, seeks to ease her way out of the organization.

According to Jessica Williams, executive editor at HarperCollins, the novel is “an exceptionally tender, ferocious, and wise examination of the relentless cycles of poverty and violence, a celebration of sisterhood and found family.”

Coss Aquino understands the comparison from some people in the publishing industry to works like The Godfather. But that film’s glamorizing of a dapper don wouldn’t apply to her subject matter. Rather, she sees greater resonances with La Madrina, a documentary about Lorine Padilla, the matriarch of the Savage Skulls gang and a committed community activist.

“Some people will say this is a book about drug dealers, and that’s fine, because my argument is that drug dealers are not different from other people,” Coss Aquino says. The spiritual development of the protagonists, which she calls the “feminine divine,” mirrors that of her own life. After growing up Catholic, and spending nearly 30 years thinking about and writing the novel, she gravitated toward the Ma Durga goddess.

“It took many decades for me to be called to that tradition, because it wasn’t like I was looking for it,” Coss Aquino says. Once she did, she was ready to finish the book.

A Bittersweet Departure

Javier Fuentes

“No one gives you a work visa because you want to write a novel” says Javier Fuentes, who moved to the United States in his early 20s from Spain. He worked at restaurants and bars before becoming an advertising copywriter. Fifteen years later, green card finally in hand and living in New York City, he felt a bit more secure to pursue his writerly ambitions.

While in Columbia’s MFA program, Fuentes read any 20th-century immigrant novel he could find. Though he read many stories of departure, arrival, and assimilation, he was struck by an absence of stories about people being sent back to their country of origin, which motivated him to write about what he calls “the reverse journey.”

Demetrio, the narrator of Countries of Origin (Pantheon, June), is an undocumented Spanish immigrant and pastry chef who rises to the pinnacle of his profession while coping with the constant fear of being deported. After accepting a job at the Four Seasons restaurant, though, his lack of papers finally catches up to him and he decides to voluntarily return to Spain.

Back home, Demetrio pursues a tentative romantic relationship with a young man from a well-connected family he met on his flight, all the while feeling professionally and personally adrift after his long time away.

Fuentes’s agent, Maria Cardona Serra at Aevitas Creative Management, was impressed by his “smoldering prose,” and by the novel’s success at conveying the feeling of “being caught in between cultures and countries.”

Shelley Wanger, senior editor at Penguin Random House, compares the novel to André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, adding that “the story is so intense, seductive, unexpected.”

The novel highlights how the character’s undocumented status restricts his field of possibilities. “I wanted to capture the fact that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that you want to do that,” Fuentes says. “Is working 18 hours in a windowless room really what Demetrio wants to do with his life? Or just a consequence of not having papers?”

The Road Home

Michael Magee

While Michael Magee told a friend he was struggling with his writing, the friend suggested Magee write him a long letter. Several missives later, the first of which ran to 20,000 words, Magee received a reply: “Do you know what you’ve done here?” the friend asked. “You’ve written a novel.”

That novel turned into Close to Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Apr.). Its protagonist, Sean, is a young man with literary ambitions and a first-generation college student. After graduating, he returns home to Belfast, where he ekes out a precarious existence while reconnecting with hard-partying friends, wild brothers, and an old girlfriend. After his involvement in a violent assault, he’s sentenced to community service.

Magee, the fiction editor of the literary journal Tangerine, lives in Belfast, where he returned after attending the University of Liverpool. “It’s a hard place to get away from,” he says, describing Belfast’s pull.

Growing up, Magee was enraptured by his grandparents, whom he calls “extraordinary storytellers” in the Irish tradition. A key moment in his reading life came when an English teacher introduced him to Barry Hines’s Kestrel for a Knave. Its portrayal of a working-class teenage protagonist was the “first instance of literature speaking directly to him,” he says.

Class concerns are central to Close to Home, with Sean straddling various social strata. “I was thinking very intensely about class and about what happens when you move back and forth between different social words,” Magee says. “There’s a melancholy, because you’ve given up a part of yourself.”

Milo Walls, an associate editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, recalls the “rare and miraculous sense of total immersion” they felt upon reading Close to Home. “It felt like watching Uncut Gems, or True Grit—but Irish, and profoundly literary,” they said.

The novel also portrays the “massive disconnect between generations,” Magee explains, with larger-than-life figures from the Troubles looming over a new generation with few economic opportunities or animating political causes. “My generation was supposed to reap the spoils of peace,” he adds. “We were told over and over that because the conflict ended, everyone in society would benefit from peace, and in reality, that hasn’t happened.”

An Allied Family

Laura Spence-Ash

“There’s such a layer of judgement in the parental world,” says Laura Spence-Ash, who has two grown children. All the more so for the parents of Bea, an 11-year-old girl, in Spence-Ash’s debut novel Beyond That, the Sea (Celadon, Mar.). It is 1940, and with London being bombarded by the Germans, they make the agonizing decision to send Bea to live with an American family until the war ends. The decades-spanning novel tracks Bea’s lifelong attachment to her new Massachusetts home, as well as her parents’ struggle to live with their choice.

Spence-Ash’s agent, Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman, says she dove into the manuscript before reading the query letter “or knowing anything about the author” and was “transfixed” by the events faced by Bea.

“The characters are trying to figure out what family means and how to define who your family is,” says Spence-Ash, a founding editor of the literary journal Craft and a book critic for the Ploughshares blog.

Spence-Ash, who grew up and lives in New Jersey, received an MBA at NYU, after which she worked
in the television industry and then as an administrator at Princeton University. After both of her parents died over the span of five years, she reevaluated her career. “When your parents are gone, you ask, Is there something that I’ve always wanted to do that I need to get back to? Writing was that thing for me.”

Publication of Spence-Ash’s work in the magazine One Story boosted her confidence, and it wasn’t long before she quit her job and enrolled in the Rutgers University–Newark MFA program. An article about evacuated British children revisiting their U.S. foster homes as adults sparked the idea for her novel.

Beyond That, the Sea comprises short scenes that capture Bea’s feelings of confusion, guilt, joy, and profound sense of peace. Explaining her choice to structure the novel this way, Spence-Ash says, “I’m not a ‘big scene’ person. Those words make me shiver a little bit.”

Still, her work often generates bursts of emotional power from brief tableaus. Reflecting on how she came to write them, Spence-Ash says, “I always thought of these scenes as moments that might become memories down the line.”

Alive on Arrival

Tyriek White

For Tyriek White, an author and musician, recording songs provides a welcome counterpoint to painstakingly assembling a novel. “I like the directness of music,” he says. “You can tap into a singular moment or emotion. It’s more immediate than the long-form labor of crafting a novel.”

The product of that labor is We Are a Haunting (Astra House, Apr.). “The initial idea for the story,” White says, “was to write a book about my neighborhood, because I thought it was deserving of being literary. You think of spaces like East New York”—the neighborhood in Brooklyn where White grew up—“or other poor disenfranchised communities, and it’s like, are we worthy of literature?”

In the novel, Colly, a boy from the neighborhood, loses his mother as a teen. Grieving and unmoored, he discovers he shares her ability to commune with spirits, to “listen across worlds, across the very thin scar between the living and nonliving,” as Colly describes the power in his narration.

White says he imagines the supernatural elements as a “conversation between Colly and his mom,” not only about how each understand the gift but also how each attempt to “build relationships within their community.”

Daniel Vazquez, senior editor at Astra House, notes that White continues the heritage of works like Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn as well as the Southern gothic tradition, and found his writing to reach the “register of Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston.”

White, who lives in Mississippi and received his MFA at Ole Miss, remembers spending an inordinate amount of time at a Barnes & Noble with his mother. “We would sit around for like hours,” he recalls. “She might drop into Macy’s or something, and I would just still be reading.”

He began writing We Are a Haunting during the program, after losing his grandmother and uncle, in order to explore how grief changed people and the dynamics of his family relationships. The resulting novel is a granular coming-of-age tale with a strong fantastical element.

It took meeting the novelist Victor LaValle for White to commit to writing a ghost story. “He was just like, ‘Write the monsters.’ Because sometimes that’s the only way we can describe what really happened.”

Matt Seidel is a frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly.