2018 First Novel Prize

The Short List for

the 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

 


Photos (clockwise from upper left): Lisa Halliday, Jordy Rosenberg, Akwaeke Emezi, Nafkote Tamirat, Jen Beagin, Tommy Orange, Tadzio Koelb

 


 

Asymmetry 

by Lisa Halliday

(Simon & Schuster)

 

Told in three distinct and uniquely compelling sections, Asymmetry explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice. The first section, “Folly,” tells the story of Alice, a young American editor, and her relationship with the famous and much older writer Ezra Blazer. A tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance that takes place in New York during the early years of the Iraq War, “Folly” also suggests an aspiring novelist’s coming-of-age. By contrast, “Madness” is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American man who, on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan, is detained by immigration officers and spends the last weekend of 2008 in a holding room in Heathrow. These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda.


 

 


 

Confessions of the Fox 

by Jordy Rosenberg

(One World)

 

Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found. Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript—a gender-defying exposé of Jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack—a transgender carpenter’s apprentice—has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary. Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them all.

 


 

Freshwater 

by Akwaeke Emezi

(Grove Press)

 

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves―now protective, now hedonistic―move into control, Ada's life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

 


 

The Parking Lot Attendant 

by Nafkote Tamirat

(Henry Holt & Co.)

 

The story begins on an undisclosed island where the unnamed narrator and her father are the two newest and least liked members of a commune that has taken up residence there. Though the commune was built on utopian principles, it quickly becomes clear that life here is not as harmonious as the founders intended. After immersing us in life on the island, our young heroine takes us back to Boston to recount the events that brought her here. Though she and her father belong to a wide Ethiopian network in the city, they mostly keep to themselves, which is how her father prefers it. This detached existence only makes Ayale’s arrival on the scene more intoxicating. The unofficial king of Boston’s Ethiopian community, Ayale is a born hustler―when he turns his attention to the narrator, she feels seen for the first time. Ostensibly a parking lot attendant, Ayale soon proves to have other projects in the works, which the narrator becomes more and more entangled in to her father’s growing dismay. By the time the scope of Ayale’s schemes―and their repercussions―become apparent, our narrator has unwittingly become complicit in something much bigger and darker than she ever imagined.

 


 

Pretend I’m Dead 

by Jen Beagin

(Scribner)

 

Jen Beagin’s debut novel introduces an unforgettable character, Mona—almost twenty-four, emotionally adrift, and cleaning houses to get by. Handing out clean needles to drug addicts, she falls for a recipient she calls Mr. Disgusting, who proceeds to break her heart in unimaginable ways. In search of healing, Mona decamps to Taos, New Mexico, for a fresh start, where she finds a community of seekers and cast-offs, all of whom have one or two things to teach her—the pajama-wearing, blissed-out New Agers, the slightly creepy client with peculiar tastes in controlled substances, the psychic who might really be psychic. But always lurking just beneath the surface are her memories of growing up in a chaotic, destructive family from which she’s trying to disentangle herself, and the larger legacy of the past she left behind.

 


 

There There 

by Tommy Orange

(Alfred A. Knopf)

 

Tommy Orange’s There There is the story of twelve unforgettable characters, Urban Indians living in Oakland, California, who converge and collide on one fateful day. As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow—some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent—momentum builds toward a shocking yet inevitable conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss.

 


 

Trenton Makes 

by Tadzio Koelb

(Doubleday)

 

1946: At the apogee of the American Century, the confidence inspired by victory in World War II has spawned a culture of suffocating conformity in thrall to the cult of masculine privilege. In the hardscrabble industrial city of Trenton, New Jersey, a woman made strong by wartime factory work kills her army veteran husband in a domestic brawl, disposes of his body, and assumes his identity. As Abe Kunstler, he secures a job in a wire rope factory, buys a car, and successfully woos Inez, an alcoholic dime dancer. He makes a home with her, but for Abe, this is not enough: to complete his transformation, he needs a son. 1971: A very different war is under way. The certainties of mid-century triumphalism are a distant, bitter memory, and Trenton's heyday as a factory town is long past. As the sign on the famous bridge says, "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." The family life Abe has so carefully constructed is crumbling under the intolerable pressures of his long ruse. Desperate to hold on to what he has left, Abe searches for solutions in the dying city.

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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 will be announced at our Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 11 at The Cunard Building. This year's judges are: Jeffery Renard Allen, Julie Lekstrom Himes, Katie Kitamura, Rachel Kushner, and Dana Spiotta.

 

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), Viet Thanh Nguyen, for The Sympathizer (Grove Press)Kia Corthron for The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter (Seven Stories), and Julie Lekstrom Himes for Mikhail and Margarita (Europa Editions).


Photos: Phil Soheili (Lisa Halliday), Beowulf Sheehan (Jordy Rosenberg and Jen Beagin), Elizabeth Wirija (Akwaeke Emezi), Rachelle Simoneau (Nafkote Tamirat), Elena Seibert (Tommy Orange), Mark X. Hopkins (Tadzio Koelb)