By Jennifer Levasseur
As the final days of 2016 unfolded into 2017, my reading took a specific focus: the best debut novels of the year, as chosen by the voting members of the National Book Critics Circle. Once the full membership decided on the top six contenders, a jury (of which I am pleased to be counted) read each to choose a winner of the John Leonard Prize. Reading these six novels gave me an excited confidence in the present and future of fiction.
Here are the shortlisted titles:
The Mothers by Brit Bennett. After her mother’s suicide, a California teenager falls into a relationship that will reframe every future event of her life. Like a Greek chorus, the church women chronicle her stumblings and those of her grieving father. An inventive and moving story about choices, friendship, deception and redemption.
The Girls by Emma Cline. Neglected by her separated parents and ditched by her best friend, a young girl is sucked in by a Charles Manson-like cult and its alluring women—and the promise of community.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. A Jamaican woman must provide for her mother and much younger sister by selling the only thing she owns as she works her way up in a tourist hotel. Haunted by her mother’s betrayal and with self-loathing because she loves someone her community will never approve, she pours all of her energy into pushing her sister to become someone she never wanted to be.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Seven generations of an African family as its branches splinter through the workings of the slave trade.
The Nix by Nathan Hill. A failed novelist discovers the mother who abandoned him as a child at the center of a media storm for attacking a politician. He retraces his childhood and her moment of radicalism as a college student in the ’70s to discover how he ended up where he is now: fired from his teaching job, addicted to video games, in breach of contract and alone.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. A Ted Hughes scholar must care for his two sons after the sudden death of his wife. In this slim, poetic novel, a trickster crow appears to the family through their grief, serving as witness, therapist and prod.
Earlier this month, alongside the finalists for the other major categories of the National Book Critics Circle Awards (whose winners will be announced March 17), the NBCC announced the winner of the John Leonard Prize: Homegoing.
Set in Ghana and the American South, Homegoing is an epic, visceral mutigenerational family saga that follows two branches of a clan irrevocably split. Two sisters unknown to each other find themselves set on wildly different paths: one stolen and forced into slavery, the other married off to a slave trader. Through seven generations, we follow the reverberations of the hardships and hopes of these sisters and their progeny. In each of the fourteen chapters, a member of the next generation moves through his or her choices as made possible by what has become before. The further these branches of the family move apart in their destinies, the more we’re convinced that our futures are bound both to our DNA and to chance as it shapes our families and their options.
The novel opens with flames and mystery: "The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father's compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night."
Readers have long had many opportunities to experience great, illuminating fiction about slavery—including Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, The Purchase by Linda Spalding, Property by Valerie Martin—but this year brought a fresh deluge that threatened to destroy what we thought we understood about America’s peculiar institution. Colson Whitehead unfurls the wide spectrum of slave experience through his picaresque The Underground Railroad. In Underground Airlines, Ben Winters posits a present day in which the Civil War never occurred; four states continue to keep humans in chains. The Sellout by Paul Beatty, a surprise winner of the Booker Prize, takes a present-day African-American man to the Supreme Court for enacting a strange form of slavery. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, which also imagines a modern slavery (in this one, a food producer cons black workers into manual labor with drugs their only reward), won the PEN/Faulkner Award. With Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi adds to and pushes forward this great tradition by showing the legacy of the slave trade and of the variations of slavery through the blood and tears of a single family as it splits apart.
Gyasi proves herself a masterful storyteller as well as a magician who threads research into the narrative with imperceptible filament. Each of her fourteen main characters could have fueled an entire novel themselves, but she distills their experience into a few pages so that their legacies waft into subsequent generations, informing and imbuing them with depth. Each time a chapter ends, we lament the end of the journey with that character but look forward to the next stage in the journey as we’re passed from hand to hand in this wide-ranging family. From an attempt to align the family to the village chief to a worrisome union to a British man who has his own, proper family back home, to being bound in chains and transported across the ocean, the relatives must at times hide their identities, forget their pasts, forge new legacies. There are feasts, the mysteries of religion and of sexual attraction, cotton fields and coal mines, Harlem bars, the violent death of children and joyful reunions. There are missed chances, poor choices, lies that cannot be untold. Gyasi’s language sings in an unclouded, unflinching opera to the grotesque and transcendent past.