A Year in Reading (First Novels)

I guess it’s that time of year, when we all take stock of what we’ve done throughout the year, and decide whether it was all worth it.

Despite my several-month-break in the middle of the year to write a thesis, I’ve managed to squeeze in some good books. And some not-so-good, but this isn’t the place for that. I’ve done something a bit different this year, and instead of a top 5 or a top 10, I’ve just gone with some novels I enjoyed very much. There are no criteria for the list and, as always, these things are purely subjective. I should note, this isn’t just stuff written in 2012 – it’s anything I’ve had a crack at over the past twelve months. So maybe some of these don’t need more people piling praise on them, but I’m only just coming to them.

In an inspired move, I’ve split the list into two: first novels, and others. This post is dedicated to first novels.

There’s something about first novels. Uninhibited by public perception or opinion, first-time writers are simply trying to tell the best tale they can. Of course, without any experience, they don’t always succeed, but there’s something refreshing in reading a piece of writing unadulterated by external factors experienced by more established writers. Here are some first novels that promise great things from writers all around the world.

Chinaman, by Shehan Karunatilaka
Anyone who knows me is aware of how disinterested in cricket I am. I know, it’s un-Australian, but any game that takes five days and requires meal breaks is just not worth my time. So congratulations to Karunatilaka for writing book about an obscure part of Sri Lankan cricket history that I fell in love with. The tale of a drunk old sports journalist, Chinaman is, by turn, funny and heartbreaking, informative and irreverent.

Wulf, by Hamish Clayton
I’m guessing this is the least known book on my list, and that’s ok. It’s a first novel from New Zealand, and Hamish Clayton has done something quite clever in it. Taking an Old English poem, Wulf and Eadwacer, and combining it with a well-known (in New Zealand, I assume) tale about the interactions between the Maori and Pakeha settlements in the 1800s. It is beautiful, restrained and enigmatic. Definitely a hidden gem.

Past the Shallows, by Favel Parrett
What a book. Maybe it’s my English degree kicking in, but it takes a lot to get me emotionally invested in characters – I’m usually more concerned with the actual process and artifice of writing. But Parrett’s debut novel barrelled right past my defences and hit me for six. It’s not a complicated story, but the beauty lies in its simplicity. No exaggeration, I was tearing up by the end, which was awkward, because I was reading it in public.

The Roving Party, by Rohan Wilson
If Parrett appealed to my emotional side, Rohan Wilson appeals to my love of language and innovation that I want to see more of in Australian fiction. Taking the horrific tale of real-life roving parties in Tasmania – groups dedicated to exterminating the Indigenous population – Wilson taps into that streak of Tasmanian Gothic that is truly one of the best sub-genres of Australian fiction.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
No one needs to hear another rave review for this book, which is good, because it really deserves the largest audience it can find. It’s the tale of an American soldier coming to terms with the death of his friend in Iraq. Powers is a poet by trade, and the juxtaposition of gorgeously descriptive language with a brutal subject turns this novel into something truly special.


2 thoughts on “A Year in Reading (First Novels)

  1. Tony says:

    Very keen to try ‘Chinaman’ as I *am* a big cricket fan :)

  2. […] This is the second part of my end-of-year round-up. For the first part, about first novels, see here. […]

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