2016 First Novel Prize

The Short List for

the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

 


Photos (clockwise from upper left): Kia Corthron, Emma Cline, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Garth Greenwell, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Krys Lee, Yaa Gyasi

 


 

THE WINNER: 
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter 

by Kia Corthron

(Seven Stories Press)

 

On the eve of America's entry into World War II, in a tiny Alabama town, two brothers come of age in the shadow of the local chapter of the Klan, where Randall―a brilliant eighth-grader and the son of a sawmill worker―begins teaching sign language to his eighteen-year-old deaf and uneducated brother B.J. Simultaneously, in small-town Maryland, the sons of a Pullman Porter―gifted six-year-old Eliot and his artistic twelve-year-old brother Dwight―grow up navigating a world expanded both by a visit from civil and labor rights activist A. Philip Randolph and by the legacy of a lynched great-aunt. The four mature into men, directly confronting the fierce resistance to the early civil rights movement, and are all ultimately uprooted.

 


 

The Girls 

by Emma Cline

(Random House)

 

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

 


 

Here Comes the Sun 

by Nicole Dennis-Benn

(Liveright)

 

Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis- Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman―fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves―must confront long-hidden scars.

 


 

Homegoing 

by Yaa Gyasi

(Knopf)

 

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, unknown to each other, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and will live in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle, raising children who will be sent abroad to be educated before returning to the Gold Coast to serve as administrators of the empire. Esi, imprisoned beneath Effia in the Castle's women's dungeon and then shipped off on a boat bound for America, will be sold into slavery. Stretching from the wars of Ghana to slavery and the Civil War in America, from the coal mines in the American South to the Great Migration to twentieth-century Harlem, Yaa Gyasi's novel moves through histories and geographies and captures―with outstanding economy and force―the troubled spirit of our own nation.

 


 

How I Became a North Korean 

by Krys Lee

(Viking)

 

Yongju is an accomplished student from one of North Korea's most prominent families. Jangmi, on the other hand, has had to fend for herself since childhood, most recently by smuggling goods across the border. Then there is Danny, a Chinese-American teenager of North Korean descent whose quirks and precocious intelligence have long marked him as an outcast in his California high school. 

 

These three disparate lives converge when each of them escapes to the region where China borders North Korea—Danny to visit his mother, who is working as a missionary there, after a humiliating incident keeps him out of school; Yongju to escape persecution after his father is killed at the hands of the Dear Leader himself; and Jangmi to protect her unborn child. As they struggle to survive in a place where danger seems to close in on all sides, in the form of government informants, husbands, thieves, abductors, and even missionaries, they come to form a kind of adoptive family. But will Yongju, Jangmi and Danny find their way to the better lives they risked everything for?

 


 

We Love You, Charlie Freeman 

by Kaitlyn Greenidge

(Algonquin Books)

 

The Freeman family―Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie―have been invited to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected for the experiment because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family.

 

Isolated in their new, nearly all-white community not just by their race but by their strange living situation, the Freemans come undone. And when Charlotte discovers the truth about the Institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past begin to invade the present.

 


 

What Belongs to You 

by Garth Greenwell

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

 

On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.

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About Our First Novel Prize

 

The Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year. The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author recieves $1,000. The winner was announced at our Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 6 at The Metropolitan Club. This year's judges are: Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chris Abani, Kate Christensen, Rivka Galchen, and Kate Walbert.

 

Previous winners include Marisha Pessl, for Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking), Junot Díaz, for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead/Penguin), Hannah Tinti, for The Good Thief (The Dial Press), John Pipkin, for Woodsburner (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese), Karl Marlantes, for Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts), Bonnie Nadzam, for Lamb (Other Press), Ben Fountain, for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco/HarperCollins), Margaret Wrinkle, for Wash (Atlantic Monthly Press), Tiphanie Yanique, for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books), and Viet Thanh Nguyen, for The Sympathizer (Grove Press).


Photo Credits: Bruce E. Rodgers (Corthron), Megan Cline (Cline), Jason Berger (Dennis-Benn), Michael Lionstar (Gyasi), Matt Douma (Lee), Syreeta McFadden (Greenidge), and Max Freeman (Greenwell)