As we approach the end of December, I always look back and celebrate the new voices that were introduced to readers over the course of the year. Two of the finalists for the Kirkus Prize were making fiction debuts in their 50s—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers with The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper) and Jocelyn Nicole Johnson with My Monticello (Henry Holt)—and they were worth waiting for. Two of the other debuts on our list of the Top 100 Fiction Books of 2021 were written by women in their 20s: Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (Mariner) and The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (Atria), both following young women working in publishing, one in London and one in New York, both with utterly distinctive voices.
Te-Ping Chen is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and the stories in Land of Big Numbers (Mariner) show her “eye for the wry, poignant detail,” according to our review. “Whether her characters are women or men, young or old, Chen displays a remarkable ability to inhabit their minds.” The stories in Yoon Choi’s Skinship (Knopf) are “both closely observed and expansive,” reminding our reviewer of Alice Munro: “Nearly every one builds to what feels like an epiphany, or a pearl of wisdom, only to rush on for more pages as though to remind us that life does not stand still, that flux is the normal state of things, and loss always lurks on love’s horizon.”
Elisa Shua Dusapin won the National Book Award for Translated Literature for Winter in Sokcho, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Open Letter). Dusapin, who lives in Switzerland, is of French and Korean heritage, and her novel follows a biracial woman working in a guesthouse in a South Korean beach town as she spends time at work, visiting her mother, and getting to know a French writer who’s come to town. Our review calls it “a triumph.” And I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I find the postcardlike illustration irresistible.
In the romance section, we were introduced to the fertile imagination of India Holton. Our reviewer described The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels (Berkley) like this: “A lady scoundrel goes on a road trip with a smooth-tongued assassin in an alternate-universe Victorian Britain.…In this joyride of a debut, Holton draws us into a madcap world of courtly corsairs, murderous matrons, and pity-inspiring henchmen.” What could be more fun?
The thriller aisle featured All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris (Morrow), about a Black lawyer whose life is turned upside down by the apparent suicide of her White lover, who was also her boss. According to our review, “corporate competition is not only racist and sexist but deadly in this confident debut thriller.”
Torrey Peters made a splash with Detransition, Baby (One World), her exploration of love, desire, and family centering around Reese, a trans woman, and Ames, her former lover, who was a trans woman when they were together but has now detransitioned. The book is “smart, funny, and bighearted,” according to our review.
Each of these writers has a distinctive vision and a lot to say, and I look forward to many more books from them in the years ahead. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case with Anthony Veasna So, who died at 28—eight months before his debut collection, Afterparties (Ecco), was published to widespread delight. Set in the world of Cambodian immigrants in California, So’s stories are dark and funny and insightful and deserve all the accolades they’ve gotten.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.