This annual award was created in 2006 to honor the best first novel of the year. Debut novels published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year are eligible.
First Novel Prize Winners
By Raven Leilani
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan
No one wants what no one wants.
And how do we even know what we want? How do we know we’re ready to take it?
Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She is also haltingly, fitfully giving heat and air to the art that simmers inside her. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules.
As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and invited into Eric’s home—though not by Eric. She becomes a hesitant ally to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.
Irresistibly unruly and strikingly beautiful, razor-sharp and slyly comic, sexually charged and utterly absorbing, Raven Leilani’s Luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of her life—her hunger, her anger—in a tumultuous era. It is also a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent, and the unexpected influences that bring us into ourselves along the way.
In West Mills
By De'Shawn Charles Winslow
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Let the people of West Mills say what they will about Azalea “Knot” Centre; they won’t keep her from what she loves best: cheap moonshine, nineteenth-century literature, and the company of men. And yet, when motherhood looms, Knot begins to learn that her freedom has come at a high price. Low on money, ostracized from her parents and cut off from her hometown, Knot turns to her neighbor, Otis Lee Loving, in search of some semblance of family and home.
Otis Lee is eager to help. A lifelong fixer, Otis Lee is determined to steer his friends and family away from decisions that will cause them heartache and ridicule. After his failed attempt to help his older sister, who lives a precarious life in the North, Otis Lee discovers a possible path to redemption in the chaos Knot brings to his doorstep. But while he’s busy trying to fix Knot’s life, Otis Lee finds himself powerless to repair the many troubles within his own family, as the long-buried secrets of his troubled past begin to come to light.
Spanning decades in a rural North Carolina town where a canal acts as the color line, In West Mills is a magnificent, big-hearted small-town story about family, friendship, storytelling, and the redemptive power of love..
By Tommy Orange
Published by Vintage
Tommy Orange’s wondrous and shattering novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil, coming to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American–grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable.
Mikhail and Margarita
By Julie Lekstrom Himes
Published by Europa Editions
It is 1933 in Russia and Mikhail Bulgakov’s enviable literary career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of Stalin’s secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously outspoken Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a satirical novel that is scathingly critical of power and the powerful.
Ranging from lively readings in the homes of Moscow’s elite to a Siberian gulag, Mikhail and Margarita recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country with a towering literary tradition confronting a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent. Margarita is a strong, idealistic woman fiercely loved by two very different men, both of whom will struggle in their attempts to shield her from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice in a time of systematic deception..
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter
By Kia Corthron
Published by Seven Stories Press
Castle Cross was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; reviewer Leonard Fitts, Jr. said, “[it] succeeds admirably in a novel’s first and most difficult task: It makes you give a damn. It also does well by a novel’s second task: It sends you away pondering what it has to say.” Famed political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis called it “a stunning achievement by any measure… The untidiness of history is conveyed through experiences, dreams, and inevitable eruptions of violence, yet also unexpected patterns of escape and possible orbits of justice.”
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.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press
A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.
It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today..
Land of Love and Drowning
By Tiphanie Yanique
Published by Riverhead Books
Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the political emergence of St. Thomas into an American territory. Wholly unique, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evokes an entire world and way of life and love.
By Margaret Wrinkle
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink..
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
By Ben Fountain
Published by Ecco/HarperCollins
Set during a single day—in fact, the action unfolds during the course of one Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game at Texas Stadium—it is a novel about the American war in Iraq, football, cheerleaders, the movie business, capitalism, love, sex, the transmigration of souls, and the general insanity of everyday life in America. The eight surviving members of Bravo Squad have been touring the U.S. on a media-intensive “Victory Tour” initiated by the Bush administration. Four months into their combat tour in Iraq, Bravo defeated an elite force of enemy insurgents. The most critical minutes of the battle were captured on film by a Fox News crew and the video has gone viral, turning the men of Bravo into celebrity heroes. But the victory had a cost, most notably the death of Sergeant Breem, aka “Shroom,” and the loss of both legs by Specialist Lake. At the tail-end of their media blitz, the eight survivors of Bravo Squad are guests of honor at the nationally-broadcast game, where all sorts of wild adventures will unfold—not least of all for Billy Lynn, Bravo’s Silver Star-winning, nineteen-year-old virginal hero.
By Bonnie Nadzam
Published by Other Press
Lamb traces the journey of David Lamb in the weeks following the disintegration of his marriage and the death of his father. Hoping to regain some faith in his own goodness, he turns his attention to Tommie, an awkward and unpopular eleven-year-old girl. Lamb is convinced that he can help her avoid a destiny of apathy and emptiness, and even comes to believe that his devotion to Tommie is in her best interest. But when Lamb decides to abduct a willing Tommie for a road trip from Chicago to the Rockies, planning to initiate her into the beauty of the mountain wilderness, they are both shaken in ways neither of them expects..
By Karl Marlantes
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts
Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.
By John Pipkin
Published by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese
The early American tree-hugger and pioneering thinker Henry David Thoreau did a bad, bad thing back on April 30, 1844. A year before he settled into the “simple life” at Walden Pond, he struck a match to start a cooking fire in the dry woods around Concord, Massachusetts and accidentally ignited a forest fire that consumed 300 acres. The events of that chaotic day appear to have altered the course of Thoreau’s life and American history. More recently, this historical footnote sparked the creation of Woodsburner. Woodsburner offers a beautifully nuanced portrait of a young and less recognizable Thoreau, whose philosophy begins to materialize as the flames lay waste..
The Good Thief
By Hannah Tinti
Published by The Dial Press
Twelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony’s Orphanage for boys. But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Díaz
Published by Riverhead/Penguin
Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fukœ-the curse that has haunted the Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim..
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
By Marisha Pessl
Published by Viking
A darkly hilarious coming-of-age novel and suspense tale told through the voice of its heroine, Blue van Meer. Blue is clever, deadpan, and possesses a vast lexicon of literary, political, philosophical, and scientific knowledge. In her final year of high school at an elite North Carolina school, Blue falls in with a charismatic group of friends and their teacher, Hannah Schneider. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class and containing ironic visual aids (drawn by the author), the novel combines suspense, self-parody, and storytelling.