What makes a great debut novel? Is it one that arrives already perfect, already a masterpiece; or one that’s rough-edged, full of brio, the spark of a brilliant career? Or something else altogether? As many answers to this question as there are books – but here’s my suitably anarchic list:
5. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit… so that’s what a literary empire sounds like, thundering towards you. To me, though, The Hobbit is just the first book I picked up and couldn’t stop reading; and I think the actual magician is Tolkien, using every narrative trick possible to keep you hooked (preciousss).
4. She Came to Stay (L’Invitée) – Simone de Beauvoir
‘You and I are simply one. Neither of us can be described without the other…’ Though we know her best for The Second Sex, de Beauvoir wrote novels, like this existentialist thriller about artists in wartime Paris. Like all her stuff, it’s pretty heavy on the philosophy, but I love it because of that engagement; and also because it’s a really personal story, about a couple who somehow become a threesome, and don’t quite know what to do about it….
3. Pig Tales (Truismes) – Marie Darrieussecq
There are lots of animals in this frightening vision of an alternative France: swimming pools full of sharks, and wolves…and then there’s our heroine, who suspects she might be turning into a pig. Funny, grotesque and dazzlingly ambitious, this made the twenty-six year-old Darrieussecq an overnight star, and makes me seethe with envy every time I read it – so it goes without saying that it’s one of my very favourites.
2. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
If you’re Flaubert, your path to publication goes like this: write Bovary for YEARS, get it published AT LAST… get sued, because this brilliant novel was a bit much for the public of the time. Flaubert wasn’t put off from writing, and published lots besides, but this is the one most people think of – and the story still feels modern and relevant today.
1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Called “wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable” when it was first published, Wuthering Heights is often thought of as Jane Eyre’s psychotic twin: which is fun, because Emily Brontë really was Charlotte’s sister, and I sometimes wonder if the pillow fights ever got out of hand. It’s a cri de coeur, all right, but a glorious one, which continues to inspire terrible romantic behaviour every single day – and I like my books a bit wild, so this is what I’ve chosen as my number one debut of all time.