The Best Debut Novels to Read in 2021 - The Gloss Magazine
4 months ago

The Best Debut Novels to Read in 2021


We’ve rounded up the best debuts to look out for from Irish and international authors this year – there’s no better excuse to support your local bookshop …

The Art of Falling, Danielle McLaughlin, €15.70, Trade Paperback

McLaughlin lives in Co Cork and is the author of a short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, her first novel The Art of Falling is a family drama about betrayal, ownership and creativity. It centres on the art curator Nessa McCormack whose marriage is healing after her husband’s affair. Yet Nessa faces more unexpected upset when an old friend exposes a betrayal and two outsiders threaten her professional and private worlds.

Words To Shape My Name, Laura McKenna, €16.95, New Island

Twice nominated for a Hennessy Literary Award and a Forward Prize for Poetry, McKenna’s debut novel traces the epic journey of a former South Carolina slave to the heart of Revolutionary Ireland and aristocratic society. The complex story and McKenna’s style has been likened to that of Hilary Mantel and Joseph O’Connor.

Pure Gold, Stories by John Patrick McHugh, €14.53, New Island

The Galway-based writer’s debut collection of stories draws the reader into the world of a fictional island off the coast of Co Mayo. Sally Rooney has anointed McHugh as a brilliant new voice in Irish fiction and says, “These stories bring to life not only the individual lives of human people but the collective life of a whole community.”

We Are All Birds of Uganda, Hafsa Zayyan, €16.99, Penguin

Zayyan is a writer and dispute resolution lawyer based in London. Having won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize in 2019, her debut novel inspired by her own mixed background and the story weaves back and forth between Uganda in the 1960s and present day London. The central characters (Hasan and Sameer) both struggle with love and loss and the notion of home.

Madam, Phoebe Wynne, €16.82, Trade Paperback

This contemporary gothic novel, (with echoes of Dead Poets Society), is set in a remote Scottish boarding school, and has a feminist edge, reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s fiction. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in this elite establishment, but when she stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor she realises there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. Rose’s sanity and safety are threatened as a result.

White Ivy, Susie Yang, €16.82, Trade Paperback

Offering insights into the immigrant experience, White Ivy is both a love story and also a glimpse at what can happen if we crave success at any cost. Ivy Lin, the central character, is a Chinese immigrant growing up in a low-income apartment complex outside Boston, who is desperate to assimilate with her American peers. Her parents disapprove especially of her low grades and entitled attitude. But Ivy has a secret weapon, her grandmother, Meifeng, from whom she learns to shoplift to get the things she needs to fit in. Ivy develops a taste for winning and for wealth. As an adult, she reconnects with the blond-haired golden boy of a prominent political family, and thinks it’s fate. Just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the almost-perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.

Everything Is Beautiful, Eleanor Ray, €14.58, Trade Paperback

Ray was inspired to write her debut novel by the objects her toddler collects and treasures – twigs, empty water bottles and wilting daisies. It’s a charming and uplifting tale about Amy Ashton whose home is overflowing with collected treasures. It’s not until new neighbours move in next door that her carefully curated life begins to unravel …

Shiver, Allie Reyolds, €16.82, Headline

Five friends, who haven’t seen each other for ten years, since the disappearance of the enigmatic and beautiful Saskia, reunite in the French Alps. But when an icebreaker game turns menacing, they realise they don’t know who has really engineered the reunion at the mountain top lodge … this is a page-turner to read by the fire.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton, €16.82, Quercus

Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, Opal takes him up on his offer to make rock music together. Just as she is finding her niche in the flamboyant, funky scene of 1970s New York, a rival band brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert where Opal & Nev are playing. Opal’s protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves for ever, but also act as a reminder that the repercussions are always harsher for (black) women, who dare to speak their truth.

When I Ran Away, Ilona Bannister, €16.82, Two Roads

When the Twin Towers collapsed, Gigi Stanislawski escaped lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the ash-covered passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, found someone she recognised – the guy with pink socks and a British accent – from the coffee shop across from her office. Together she and Harry Harrison make their way to her parents’ house where she waits for the phone call from her younger brother that never comes. Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother, reconnects with Harry and they fall in love and move to London. It feels like a chance for the happy ending, but is fraught with class and culture clashes as well as the unresolved grief for her brother.

The Last One At The Party, Bethany Clift, €14.98, Hodder & Stoughton

Clift’s debut subject matter seems to be chillingly prescient. It’s December 2023 and the world as we know it has ended; the human race has been wiped out by a virus called 6DM (Six Days Maximum – the longest you’ve got before your body destroys itself). But somehow, in London, one woman is still alive, with only her golden retriever for company. As she travels through cities, circumnavigating rats and rotting corpses, she wants to know if she really is the last survivor on earth …

Closure, Emily Freud, €11, Quercus

Kate Sullivan has a beautiful home, a career she loves and a handsome fiancé. Plus, she’s been sober for six years. When her old friend Becky reappears, past anxieties threaten to derail Kate’s perfect life. This thriller, with echoes of Single White Female, is about broken friendships, betrayal and secrets: should Kate have invited Becky to stay?

Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan, €13.99, Jonathan Cape

Irish author Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation will be published in March of this year. It tells the story of a young woman as she relives her past affairs – in particular, one intensely toxic relationship – and explores themes of love addiction and female desire.

Little Scratch, Rebecca Watson, €18.20, Faber

Rebecca Watson’s experimental debut novel began as a piece that was shortlisted for the White Review story prize in 2018. It follows a single day in the life of one woman, from the moment the narrator wakes to the time she falls asleep, told as a stream of consciousness monologue and encompassing themes of sexual assault and self-harm, with a unique writing form and layout.

The Divines, €21.65, Ellie Eaton, Hodder & Stoughton

Decades after her boarding school days in the elite St John the Divine, Josephine, now married and living in Los Angeles, recalls the period in her life when a shocking tragedy forced the school to shut its doors for good – and explores the intoxicating and destructive relationships that can exist between teenage girls. Having been likened to both My Dark Vanessa and Emma Cline’s The Girls, this promises to be a gripping page-turner of a debut by Eaton.

No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood, €18, Bloomsbury

Poet and author of the memoir Priestdaddy, Lockwood will publish her first novel this year. No One is Talking About This follows the jet-setting life of a social media influencer as she travels around the world meeting her fans until her life is interrupted by two texts from her mother, “Something has gone wrong,” and “How soon can you get here?”. Exploring modern life and the digital world, this is one for the Insta-addicts among us.


The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr, €20.30, Riverrun

This debut follows two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation as they forge a forbidden intimate union. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible and is not necessarily an easy read but one that is rewarding in its richness, depth and its exploration of love.

The Push, Ashley Audrain, €16.00, Michael Joseph

Previously the publicity director at Penguin Books Canada, Ashley Audrain has produced a tense psychological page-turner as her debut novel. The Push centres around the life of Blythe Connor, a new mom who discovers motherhood is not what she expected as insecurities and anxieties take hold and reveal deeper secrets that emerge.

Outlawed, Anna North, €16.85, Bloomsbury

Described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets True Grit, Outlawed set in 1894, follows Ada, an outlaw. After a year of marriage and no pregnancy in a town that hangs barren women as witches, Ada finds a tribe in the Hole in the Wall gang, a group of similar outcast women.

Luster, Raven Leilani, €16.70, Picador

Set in New York, Luster follows a broke 23-year-old Edie who becomes entangled in the open marriage of a much older rich white man, while navigating the world – with its overwhelming racial, social and class issues – and exploring her identity as a black woman in 21st-century capitalist America.


Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.

Choose Your Categories


Pin It on Pinterest