This season’s crop of promising debut fiction offers timeless human dramas from fresh perspectives.
Covering the Spread
Yomi Adegoke claims that the inspiration for her novel, The List (Morrow, Sept.), a real-life spreadsheet for anonymously naming abusers in the U.K. entertainment and media scene, could just have easily been a fake review on Tripadvisor. “The novel for me is first and foremost about the internet,” Adegoke says, but she chose this vehicle because the ethics of anonymous allegations raised such thorny and narratively rich issues.
Adegoke, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has lived in Croydon in South London for most of her life. She tried to break into journalism after college, but the pieces she was pitching on race and feminism weren’t landing—“The conversation on race was very primordial at that time,” she says, referring to the years shortly before Black Lives Matter—so she started her own magazine, Birthday, which was geared toward young Black women. She has gone on to cover culture for the Guardian and Vogue, and published a nonfiction book in the U.K., Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible.
Ola, the protagonist of The List, is a prominent Black journalist who writes for a site called Womxxxn. After Ola sees her fiancé’s name on a viral list of abusers, he denies any impropriety, and they proceed with their wedding. The list causes a rift in their marriage, however, and creates a backlash for Ola, who is accused of being a traitor to the feminist cause.
“No one actually knows what they would do until they’re in that scenario,” Adegoke says. “With Ola, as someone who has made a name as a spokesperson for women, the conflict within her was really visceral.”
Hayley Steed, Adegoke’s agent at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, praises the novel for “exploring the nuance and ‘gray’ of seemingly black-and-white issues” and “the way in which we navigate a world ready to go to war in the name of an ism.”
Morrow v-p and editorial director Jessica Williams calls The List a “bold, wildly entertaining, and wise exploration of the real-world impact of online life.”
When Adegoke started writing, she forced herself to be “stoic and serious,” she says, having internalized the stigma around propulsive or commercial plots, especially for women writers. But as the project progressed, she decided to infuse the novel with both her natural sense of satire and high drama. “I thought I couldn’t possibly write something that’s enjoyable and still have it be a good book,” she laughs.
John Manuel Arias
For John Manuel Arias, writing about the Costa Rican banana industry was risky business. “They have the most powerful lawyers in the world,” Arias says. “When I was back in Costa Rica, everyone was like, they’re going to send you to jail, right?”
Where There Was Fire (Flatiron, Sept.) interweaves the tale of a Costa Rican family with the nefarious mid-20th-century history of the fruit companies that sought to transform the country into “one giant plantation,” as Arias writes in the novel. The nonlinear narrative gradually reveals the connections between two fateful events on one night in 1969: a laborer of the fictional American Fruit Company murders his mother-in-law, and a massive fire destroys the plantation. The story, which alternates between the 1960s and the 1990s and incorporates elements of magic realism, shows how the family’s women are riven by that night’s twin disasters.
The novel’s exploration of capitalism, family, and grief appealed to Flatiron executive editor Nadxieli Nieto, who credits Arias for rendering those themes’ “fluid contours,” and says the book “feels like a story told by a best friend over a cafecito. You can’t help but scrape your chair and lean in closer.”
The son of a Costa Rican father and a Uruguayan mother, Arias was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His female-centered narrative owes something to his maternal grandmother. When Arias recently stayed with her and his great-aunts in Costa Rica, he added up their ages and was surprised by the results. “There were over 300 years of stories,” he says, “300 years of surviving in an incredibly machista society.”
When writing fiction, Arias, who is also a poet, finds that he must occasionally rein in his love of metaphorical language. Nonetheless, his novel’s magic realist moments provide a potent poetical channel. “What I love about magic realism,” says Arias, “is that it’s the ultimate poetic form in fiction in that you have symbols that literally come to life.”
Point of No Return
In Maya Binyam’s Hangman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug.), an American immigrant from an unnamed African country puzzles his way through an uncanny homecoming to visit his ailing brother. “I was raised with the idea of refuge as a legal and political concept and as a lived experience,” says Binyam, who lives in Los Angeles and has worked in book publishing and as an editor at the Paris Review and the New Inquiry. Binyam’s mother was an immigration attorney and judge, and her father was an Ethiopian refugee who, having been detained as a political prisoner for his student organizing work, fled to Boston.
The unnamed protagonist’s surreal disorientation and dryly comic efforts to reason his way through his encounters reflect the way a person’s migration can split their psyche. Binyam describes asylum as an “individuating process” that “requires leaving behind collective life in order to save one’s life.”
One generation on, Binyam feels ambivalent about her American identity when she visits her father’s homeland. “I find myself going back to Ethiopia with this shameful burden that I want to be rid of, but of course I’m also attached to it.”
As the narrator proceeds on his dreamlike journey, he fails to glean any concrete information about his brother’s condition.
On a trip to Ethiopia in 2016, Binyam received news that her uncle was “especially sick.” She realized during her four-day journey that he had already died, but that her relatives were waiting to deliver the news in person. “It’s an amazing feat of empathy, but it can also be highly theatrical,” she says. Binyam became fascinated with that “collective play” and thought it could be an organizing principle for a novel, “where the thing that’s propelling everything forward is unspoken.”
Shiva, the protagonist of Temim Fruchter’s City of Laughter (Grove, Jan.), is fascinated by her female Polish ancestors. A queer Jewish woman living in New York City, Shiva pursues a master’s degree in Jewish folklore and travels to Poland for a research project, first to Warsaw, then Ropshitz, a pious town known for being the birthplace in 1760 of “Laughing Rabbi” Reb Naftali Tzvi, a jester who performed at weddings. Shiva’s great-grandmother also lived there, and her resounding laugh was met with disapprobation in the community. Explaining the character trait, Fruchter says, “I wanted something that might have marked this ancestor as other, as too feminine, too exuberant, too loud, too big.”
Fruchter was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish family in Silver Spring, Md. After graduating from college in the early 2000s, she moved to Brooklyn, where she recalls everything suddenly “exploding” for her. “I was like, do I have politics? Am I queer? Do I have opinions?” Fruchter recalls. “The answer,” she adds, “was ‘yes’ to all those questions.” She worked at progressive nonprofits until her friends asked her to join their band, the Shondes, as their drummer despite never having played the instrument. On tour with the group, she wrote regularly, gathering material she would return to as a novelist.
Shiva is drawn to Jewish folklorist and writer S. Ansky, whose 1920 play The Dybbuk recounts a young woman’s possession by a spirit. Fruchter’s characters are possessed in other ways—by desire, stories, and laughter. She expresses a fondness for the “blurry line” between material and spiritual realities in both folklore and queer sensibilities, and says her novel “lives in that blurriness.”
Grove Atlantic v-p and executive director Amy Hundley praises the book’s “old-soul deep-hearted quality.” When Hundley read the manuscript, she was struck by Fruchter’s fresh descriptions of queer people and desire, comparing the novel’s effect to “the way that Torrey Peters verbalized the lives of trans women for a lot of readers for the first time.”
For Fruchter, writing about the late-blooming Shiva’s search for answers—about her family, career, and romance—was personal. “As someone whose path has been somewhat circuitous,” Fruchter says, “the idea of queer time and queer temporality is dear to me.”
Cracking the Case
Kyle Dillon Hertz
New York State’s 2019 Child Victims Act granted adults a one-year window to file civil suits against their childhood abusers. (Previously, victims had to have initiated a suit by their 23rd birthday.) Kyle Dillon Hertz, who was sexually abused as a teenager, questions the arbitrary time limit of this law while acknowledging the power of a deadline. “Imagine if the world was like, ‘You have one year to just deal with the worst thing that you’ve been through,’ ” he says.
Dylan, the sardonic narrator of Hertz’s The Lookback Window (Simon & Schuster, Aug.), was sexually trafficked as a teen. In his mid-20s and preparing to marry his boyfriend as the window for filing a lawsuit closes, Dylan considers what justice, financial or otherwise, would mean to him. “If justice is money,” Hertz says, “we’re all fucked, because most people will never get it.”
In his MFA program at NYU, Hertz “protected the draft at all costs,” workshopping only one short excerpt. “For my own sanity, it had to be true and real. And it had to be violent.” Responding to criticisms that certain depictions of Dylan’s abuse are difficult to stomach, Hertz is unapologetic: “Good. Certain things should be tough to take.”
Hertz’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb at the Gernert Company, claims The Lookback Window avoids the pitfalls inherent in trauma plots as outlined in a recent essay by the New Yorker’s Parul Sehgal: “At a moment when too many young writers use trauma as a shortcut in their plots and characterization,” Parris-Lamb says, “it’s all the more powerful and refreshing to see it sublimated into art, rather than deployed as a device.”
Hertz was adopted from Texas and grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. The day he finished high school, he packed up and left for San Diego. After amassing community college credits, he moved to New York City to attend the New School at age 26. Ever since his abuse started at the age of 14, Hertz says, he “did not think for one minute about a future. And so I was writing, writing, to make up for lost time.”
The novel frankly depicts adult Dylan’s sexual encounters as fleeting connections that permit him to look forward, however briefly. “That’s the truth of the world,” Hertz says. “You kiss one person and a whole potential future opens up to you.”
Trouble in Paradise
Megan Kamalei Kakimoto
For a long time, Megan Kamalei Kakimoto avoided writing about her Hawaiian cultural heritage, fearing that such work would pigeonhole her and that she might not do justice to the island’s myths. Eventually, she overcame her reluctance and wrote “Temporary Dwellers,” a story of adolescent romance between two Hawaiian Japanese teenage girls. The piece “really opened up my style,” Kakimoto says. “It also brought in all these other obsessions that I have about women’s bodies and generational trauma.”
Iwalani Kim, Kakimoto’s agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Assoc., describes her as a “wickedly talented writer” who memorably represents their shared homeland in the collection, Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare (Bloomsbury, Aug.). “I recognized the Hawaii I grew up in and how uncompromising she was about capturing it on the page,” Kim says.
Kakimoto left Honolulu to attend Dartmouth College (“the farthest place I could conceive of,” she says), then returned for an unsatisfying job at a PR firm in Honolulu. She later entered the MFA program at the University of Texas at Austin, before returning again to Oahu. Kakimoto has witnessed many of her friends “priced out of paradise,” she says. “Seeing the way that the physical and financial landscape has changed has been pretty hard to deal with.”
The collection’s visceral stories chronicle intense moments in the lives of Hawaiian girls and women dealing with adolescence, body image issues, mental health, and motherhood. “I wanted to allow the space for women, and especially mothers, to be as messy, vulnerable, loving, and hateful as they need to be on the page,” Kakimoto says, adding that loneliness was also an important theme to explore. “How the physical isolation of the Hawaiian islands and emotional isolation can work on a person in tandem was really interesting to me.”
The tales unfold within a landscape of deeply held traditions, myths, and superstitions from multiple cultures, a catalog of which opens the collection from a mother’s point of view: “Don’t kill the moth! Could also be your father.” Kakimoto says these diverse Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese beliefs “tethered” the stories. “And personally, they have tethered me to so many different people on this island.”
Ruinenlust, or the melancholic pleasure of viewing crumbling structures, animates Christine Lai’s Landscapes (Two Dollar Radio, Sept.). The novel is set in Mornington Hall, a dilapidated English country house and a tenuous oasis in a world ravaged by climate change. European capitals are encased in giant geodesic domes for the affluent, while displaced people roam the countryside.
Lai’s agent, Martha Webb, co-owner of CookeMcDermid, calls Lai a “serious writer,” adding that her work “exudes a confidence one rarely sees in a debut novel.” Webb was also struck by “how lightly but seamlessly it wears its dystopian setting.”
Penelope, Mornington Hall’s archivist, races to catalog the estate’s library before the house’s scheduled demolition, damage from natural disasters having left it beyond affordable repair. Two decades earlier, she was assaulted by Mornington Hall’s former owner and heir, Julian, who plans to return to the estate one final time.
Lai was born in Taipei before moving as a child to Vancouver, where she currently lives. She received a PhD in English from University College London, where one of her research interests was the 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner, whose work exerts an almost talismanic power in the novel. A Turner painting, The Rape of Proserpine, spurred Lai to read up on the copious representations of sexual violence in Western art. “I hadn’t encountered that kind of research before,” she says, “and that gave me Penelope’s backstory.”
The text alternates between Penelope’s and Julian’s points of view as she takes stock of the estate’s remaining possessions and dreads a potential reunion while he travels across Europe. Throughout, Lai meditates on ecological and material losses. “Archiving is a form of preservation,” she says about her novel’s themes, “that in times of loss might contribute toward rebuilding.”
Lai wanted to write a country house novel that subverts the glamor of depictions like that of Downton Abbey. She was influenced by W.G. Sebald’s narratives of houses similar to Mornington, which required for their construction the devastation of landscapes and villages. “I was fascinated by this idea that something that appears very beautiful and respectable is in fact complicit in this history of destruction.”
Jonathan Abernathy, the protagonist of Molly McGhee’s surreal and speculative novel Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind (Astra House, Oct.), is saddled with debt from credit cards, student loans, and other sources so diverse as to constitute their own “ecosystem.”
McGhee, whose parents were hit hard by the 2008 recession and who grew up in a cramped apartment above a barn in rural Tennessee, says Abernathy reminds her of people she knew in those days, “with things so stacked against them that just being alive could feel insurmountable.”
Astra House editorial director Alessandra Bastagli praises McGhee’s “singular insights into debt and labor,” and compares Abernathy to P.G. Wodehouse’s “unlikable and yet irresistible” Bertie Wooster.
Abernathy finds relief of a sort with a government-sponsored program in which he’s given a job at a company called the Archival Office 508 in exchange for forbearance on his student loans. Corporations hire the outfit to audit the dreams of their employees, and Abernathy suits up each night to remove any content that could hamper productivity from employees’ unconscious minds.
McGhee uses this fantastical setup to explore America’s debt crisis and obsession with success. “How can we think about these things without a certain level of spiritual and emotional burnout?” McGhee asks. “For me, storytelling in all forms is the answer.”
The idea for the novel came from a recurring anxiety dream McGhee had during graduate school at Columbia, where she is now an adjunct on the undergraduate creative writing faculty. The pandemic was raging and McGhee was burned-out from her editorial work at Tor, from which she publicly resigned on Twitter in March 2022, citing heavy workload, low pay, and the slow pace of professional advancement. Unable to find a publisher for a previous novel, and grieving the loss of her mother, she started writing down the dream out of desperation. Such work involves “translating a feeling,” McGhee says. “How can I give this emotional state to someone else and make it real so that I stop obsessing over it?”
A Juicy Tale
Amanda Peters’s idea for The Berry Pickers (Catapult, Oct.) sprang from a 2017 road trip to Maine she took with her father from their home in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. Her father, a Canadian Mi’kmaq who had seasonally migrated from Nova Scotia to Maine to pick blueberries, suggested that Peters write about his experiences. Peters replied, “Dad, I write fiction, I make things up.” The first line of the first chapter came to her during the visit: “The day Ruthie went missing, the blackflies seemed to be especially hungry.”
In the resulting story, Peters imagines the kidnapping of a toddler named Ruthie, the daughter of Mi’kmaq berry pickers, by a white well-to-do family who raise her with the name Norma. Peters traces the effects of the abduction and uprooting on Norma as she comes of age, and on her birth parents and siblings, especially her six-year-old brother, the last person to see her.
Norma grows up and eventually questions her origins, allowing Peters to reflect on some of the painful legacies of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people, including the Sixties Scoop, in which children were taken from their parents and placed in foster homes in the 1960s, and the abuse at residential schools. “Amanda’s deft storytelling, her groundedness in the stories of her people, and the importance of stories that highlight the legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous peoples give The Berry Pickers extraordinary depth and power,” says Peters’s agent, Marilyn Biderman of Transatlantic Agency.
A development manager for the First Nations Financial Management board in Canada, Peters loved a continuing education course on novel writing at the University of Toronto so much that she completed the entire curriculum of eight courses. “I still wasn’t ready to write a novel,” she says, but it motivated her to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.Mex.
Since finishing the book, Peters says that Mi’kmaq people, from current and former berry pickers to her father’s colleagues on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, have shared their stories with her. “I want people to know that migrant workers work their butts off and are good people,” she says.
A Host of Stories
When Shannon Sanders brought a story to a workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., a classmate said they weren’t ready to be done with its characters. Such feedback is common for short story writers, Sanders says, “and it’s not always easy to tell whether that comment is meant as a compliment.”
Nonetheless, Sanders took such remarks to heart and began writing Company (Graywolf, Oct.), a linked collection featuring a Black family and others in their orbit. Yuka Igarashi, executive editor at Graywolf, loved a tweet Sanders wrote about the “secret trapdoor” that can exist between two fully realized stories. “Each piece stands alone, but each complicates the previous one to form a multifaceted whole,” Igarashi says about the book.
Sanders’s agent, Reiko Davis of DeFiore & Co., identifies a mastery in Sanders’s stories on “line by line and structural” levels, and echoes Igarashi on the collection’s linkages: the stories “talk to each other in such ingenious, entertaining ways,” Davis says.
When it came time to decide on a title, Sanders realized the stories all dealt with the arrival of a guest. “It occurred to me that I accidentally wrote the same story,” laughs Sanders, who says she’s obsessed with writing about hospitality. “I’m interested in how people behave when they’re performing for others, and how that performance changes based on who the others are.”
Sanders lives in Silver Spring, Md., has three young children, and is a lawyer for a financial regulator. “I wouldn’t understand what was happening on Succession if not for some of the work I do,” she says, adding that she can’t go into details. Having edited her high school literary magazine and written X-Files fan fiction as a teenager, she eventually found a “lifeline back to the humanities” when she signed up for the Bethesda workshop in 2015. At the same time, Sanders feels like her legal work has been valuable, allowing her to hone her writing skills in a “non-creatively demanding way.”
Company reveals some of the class divisions that spring up within a family as four sisters, the daughters of Atlantic City nightclub owners, take different professional paths. “In Black America and in urban living,” Sanders says, “there are these divides that develop at some point in time, and wide chasms can really open up fast across generations.”
Matt Seidel is a contributor to PW.