10 Great Debut Novels

On this blog, I reviewed some debut books which I loved (such as When Rain Clouds Gather, Moth Smoke, The People in the Trees and The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau) and which I hated/disliked (such as The Miniaturist, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Idaho and A Pale View of Hills), and this got me thinking about debut novels – what are the chances of writing/publishing one’s first novel and it becoming a straight “literary masterpiece”? Apparently for the authors below exactly that happened. For the purposes of this list, a debut book is the first published (not written) novel of an author (excluding poems, plays, non-fiction and short stories). This list of 10 great debut novels is in no particular order:

The God of Small Things CoverI. The God of Small Things [1997] by Arundhati Roy

It is hard to believe that this Booker Prize-winning novel is a debut of Arundhati Roy, but it is true. This book changed my perception of literature and what it can do. The tale of a pair of twins growing up in India in the late 1960s is a powerful and exceptionally beautifully account. Roy’s language is inventive as she explores in this book such themes as hope, love, loss and despair. A modern classic. 

Revolutionary Road Book ReviewII. Revolutionary Road [1961] by Richard Yates 

Revolutionary Road is my favourite book of all time. Richard Yates has done something remarkable with this debut in which he wrote about the culture of conformity of the 1950s in the US, centering on Frank and April Wheeler, a couple that wants “to break free” from their cycle of normalcy and go to Paris “to live”. Thought-provoking, beautiful and deeply emotional, Revolutionary Road is special in every way.

To Kill a Mockingbird Novel PosterIII. To Kill a Mockingbird [1960] by Harper Lee 

The debut novel of Harper Lee has become a best-seller upon its publication, and deals with such important issues as racial inequality and prejudice, and the state of the law. Harper’s creation – Atticus Finch is the novel’s hero who represents a black man, Tom, accused of raping and assaulting a white woman. This is an important book in many respects to be re-read and enjoyed again and again.

The Secret History Book CoverIV. The Secret History [1992] by Donna Tartt 

Donna Tartt has accomplished a great feat with her debut. The Secret History is an unputdownable instant best-seller that has share amount of both beauty and darkness inside, centering on now typically Tartt’s gloomy youth (thanks to Patricia Highsmith, too). The Secret History probably took some cue from Dead Poets Society [1989] to conjure up the world of college students studying classics under the charismatic leadership of one teacher whose counsel and lectures the students start to take too closely to heart.

jonathan strange & mr norrell book coverV. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [2004] by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s magical debut reminds of the works of Dickens and this praise is no exaggeration. In this novel, two magicians (the last practising magicians in England) befriend each other and start collaborating, not even realising that darker forces around already start to conspire to overthrow the very foundation of their success. Clarke’s language is a marvel, and the episodic plot is hugely entertaining. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Book CoverVI. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [1997] by J.K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling’s first book, which was once rejected by twelve publishing houses, is now one of the most read books in the world. While the jury is still out on the literary merit of the Harry Potter series, no one can deny the sheer inventiveness and the pulling force of the series. A truly magical world and experience open up to every reader. All the accolades are futile, you just need to start reading to believe, and you will be converted. It is guaranteed. 

The Outsider CamusVII. The Outsider [1942] by Albert Camus 

Before The Outsider (or The Stranger), Albert Camus might have published non-fiction work and essays, but his first published fiction novel is listed as The Outsider, which did not have immediate success upon its first publication, but is now considered a classic in the existential literature genre. The tale of Meursault and his indifference form the basis of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd, and the book is significant in a way it raises some significant issues about personal responsibility and the nature of the society we live in. 

The Bonfire of the Vanities Book CoverVIII. The Bonfire of the Vanities [1987] by Tom Wolfe 

Like Revolutionary Road above, this debut book by Tom Wolfe is all about “The Fall of the American Dream”. At the centre of this epic, fast-paced satire is Sherman McCoy or “The Master of the Universe” with money, a house, a wife, a lovely kid and a beautiful lover in his life. He risks losing it all when a car accident happens. Echoing The Great Gatsby, The Bonfire of the Vanities may be a long novel, but it is also a richly-written, entertaining story about class prejudices and differences in the 1980s’ New York City, as well as the far-reaching power of media. Highly recommend.

The House of the Spirits Book CoverIX. The House of the Spirits [1982] by Isabel Allende 

Allende weaves magical realism into this tale of the Trueba family, and, roughly, there are three generations of women at the centre of the plot: Clara, Blanca and Alba (all in some way connected to mysticism). Skilfully written and constructed, this is a tale of everything: love and tragedy, passion and violence (there is also much comment on the history and political situation). If you want to get immersed into a high-quality inter-generational saga, this is a book for you.

The Name of the Rose Book CoverX. The Name of the Rose [1980] by Umberto Eco 

The year is 1327, and there is a murder mystery to solve and secrets of an Italian abbey to uncover. This book is complicated but no less ingenious for that. Much history is interwoven here in the plot, alongside some philosophy, theology and politics. The result is a stunning debut and an exhilarating intellectual trip into the unknown.

Honourable mentions: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit [1937], J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye [1951], Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man [1952], Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 [1961] and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar [1963]. In the forthcoming months, I am also looking forward to reading Toni Morrison’s debut The Bluest Eye [1970] and Chinua Achebe’s debut novel Things Fall Apart [1958].

Have you read and loved/maybe disliked any of the books listed above? What are your favourite debut novels? What do you think is required to write a brilliant first novel?

30 thoughts on “10 Great Debut Novels

  1. I always find the idea of a debut somewhat weird – as writers have often written multiple unpublished novels before their debut, it shouldn’t be that surprising that many of them are brilliant. Totally agree about The Miniaturist and Seven Deaths though!

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    1. Yeah, I agree, but then again it is always publishable work that counts – this is the level to reach. You agree on The Miniaturist and The Seven Deaths? Thanks 🙂 I hold very unpopular opinion on both.

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      1. But this assumes that earlier work wasn’t publishable? Yes, I didn’t really like The Miniaturist (The Muse is a lot better) and I couldn’t get past the first few pages of Seven Deaths!

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        1. Well, if it were publishable, it would have been published in some way already, maybe 🙂 Yes, I do agree with you – it is a bit weird talking about debut books.

          I was so disappointed with The Miniaturist that I am even revising my opinion of Waterstones which named the book their Book of the Year and now The Miniaturist is on their shelf titled “literary masterpieces”. The Miniaturist is that one best-seller whose success I will never understand. The novel is just so bad, in my eyes.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more with your selection that is full of great books; but if you ask me I would have included A start in life by Anita Brookner and also Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Best regards!

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    1. Thanks for agreeing and your suggestions! I have not read the two books you mention – maybe that is why they are not on the list. I have to read Sally Rooney and I read only Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which I adored.

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  3. Gosh, I hadn’t realised Revolutionary Road was his debut – amazing! It’s such an accomplished novel, so insightful and so powerful. Mockingbird of course is a very famous debut – what a pity it also turned out to be her only novel, at least until Watchman was published a few years ago.

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    1. Isn’t it extraordinary that Revolutionary Road is a debut? I feel like anyone needed to write at least five other novels before they reached the perfection of Revolutionary Road.

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    1. Thank you! “The Secret History” is also my favourite of hers. From Tartt’s three novels “The Goldfinch” is actually my least favourite and I consider “The Little Friend” her other masterpiece.

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  4. Homegoing was an extraordinary debut as was Kintu, and Stay With Me and The Snow Child!
    Then there are those who only ever write one like Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War.Wonderful examples, I seem to avoided those you didn’t like.

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  5. Hi Diana, I am currently about halfway through “The Name of the Rose” and it definitely is complicated . The history is quite fascinating though and has piqued my interest for some further reading. Incredible to think it was a debut!

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