2020 - it’s a year of many stories. As we take stock in our homes across the country, books have continued to captivate our imaginations, transporting us to a safe space of silence, solitude, and relaxation. Enduring in their capacity to help us connect to other people and worlds, both fact and fiction, the sense of perspective we gain as readers is as important as it ever was.
Whether you’re looking for new novelist contributors to your favourite genre or want to branch out into new subject matter, 2020 has seen some excellent debut novelists rise to make their mark in the industry. Here, we’ll be taking a look at seven of the best debut novelists to keep an eye on.
A major theme of this year has been realising and respecting the hard work and dedication of those we too often take for granted, particularly the staff that comprise the NHS. Bev Thomas sought to humanise those who work in medicine and health in her debut book A Good Enough Mother. Shadowed against her background as an NHS psychologist, this book describes the life and experiences of those who work as therapists. We may view therapists as being solely defined by their profession - as rocks of logic, reason and wisdom. Bev Thomas paints a much more introverted and intimate picture of therapists where professional lives are often hard to disentangle from personal lives.
Bev Thomas is adept of bringing life to a complex web of life experience, trauma, and the challenges of therapist-patient relationships Owing to her background as an NHS psychologist, Bev Thomas’ writing has a stark and evocative realism. Underpinning it all is a message that while we might perceive those within healthcare as belonging purely to that professional world, they too are maybe dealing with difficult lives and many of the same challenges that we also experience on the other side of the fence.
Douglas Stuart’s humble beginnings are rooted in a 1980s Glasgow council estate from which he studied textiles at Galashiels, eventually reaching the Royal College of Art. From there, he found himself in New York working as a fashion designer from top fashion houses, including Calvin Klein. Throughout, he described himself as always being a ‘secret writer’.
His debut novel, Shuggie Bain follows a lonely and destitute protagonist, Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, as he and his mother navigate the economic hardships of Thatcher’s Britain. A love story about masculinity and survival, the novel charts the course of love amongst an environment where love does not come so naturally.
Stuart relishes the solitude of writing and says that it is in a state of loneliness that he finds his best focus. That is his first challenge, as New York is certainly not a quiet place! Armed with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in-between and after the hours his husband is at home, Stuart finds that state of lonely focus.
At just 27, Jessica Moor finished her MA in Creative Writing before working at a women’s refuge charity organisation. Shortly after, Moor published her debut novel Keeper. Tense and charged with a feminist critique and commentary, her book explores the lives of those who work in a woman’s refuge. Moor, as a self-confessed developing feminist, seeks to raise the profile of those experiencing coercive behaviour in the modern world.
Moor wants to raise awareness that controlling behaviour can germinate from small things and quickly turn into much more serious forms of domestic abuse. By taking an analytical approach to writing, Jessica Moor says she wants to crawl between different genres and discover what sort of themes involving violence and coercion against women have been suppressed.
Exploring the dilated nature of time in fast metropolitan cities and the strange and complex arrangements that it generates, Beth O’Leary’s own experiences are the inspiration behind her debut book, The Flatshare.
O’Leary moved in with her boyfriend, a junior doctor, who was working nights as she commuted early morning into work as usual. The result? A living arrangement where two people were close but rarely close enough to be in the same living space at the same time. O’Leary says she used to decode how his day was by the number of coffee mugs by the sink and the position of his trainers. Her debut novel is based on a similar premise. It charts the life of two young professionals desperate to make a London life from a one-bed flat. Blending modern realism, humour and a riveting conversational style, O’Leary’s style captivates audiences of every generation.
Alex Michaelides, inspired by Agatha Christie, the author who he says made him both a reader and a writer, released his debut novel, a psychological thriller The Silent Patient in 2019. Sold in 40 countries, the book set a record for overseas sales of a UK debut thriller. The thriller follows a woman accused of being responsible for her husband’s death, who refuses to speak of it to anyone, including her therapist. The story is infused with Greek mythology, namely the story of Alcestis.
Michaelides had worked as a screenwriter but says that writing quickly became his natural medium. It allowed him to slow down and really investigate characters and their psyche in a more granular, thorough and patient way.
Kate Elizabeth Russell
There are few books, if any, like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut My Dark Vanessa to have earnt quite the headlines and accolades so far in 2020. A Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, this novel explores the difficult, controversial yet incredibly pertinent and important topic of a 15-year old girl’s relationship with her controlling English teacher. Thorough and modern in her approach to emotional inquiry, Kate Elizabeth Russell seeks to raise the profile of abuse and coercion through the lens of those most easily manipulated, even when they do not feel that way themselves.
The darker atmospheres of Scotland help inspire Francine Toon, whose debut psychological ghost thriller Pine takes place in the Highlands. An endlessly fertile landscape for artistic inspiration, Francine Toon’s background is in poetry where she appeared in the Best British Poetry anthologies in 2013 and 2015. In the Highlands, her childhood taught her the thrills and chills of ghost stories and the impacts these can have on us as children. Walking a line between fact and folklore, Toon blends reality and mythology to create tense magical atmospheres that echo through the atmospheric landscapes in which they’re set.