January Reads: Flaherty-Dunnan Prize Shortlist

This January I read my way through the seven finalists for The Center for Fiction’s 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize:

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
The Land of Steady Habits by Ted Thompson
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique (Winner)

At first, I was struck by how profoundly these books transcend the expected pitfalls of even the strongest debuts. (Many of the blurbs gracing these jackets contain some version of the sentiment “this cannot possibly be _________’s first novel.”) I found the biggest reward of reading all seven novels in quick succession was pushing through this initial, simple delight at their quality--and so, by the end of the shortlist, being completely rid of the expectation that an author’s first effort will be either shaky or simple. Fellow aspiring novelists: read these debut books and feel your excuses evaporate. These are seven careers to watch, that much is certain.

By chance, there are strong thematic connections webbing between these novels. Fourth of July Creek and The Enchanted both follow social workers battling their own demons in addition to their clients’, but all seven books look at power and powerlessness with themes of surveillance, punishment, dreams of success, and reputation. Place is everything in these books, and unnavigable wilds surrounded me on all sides this month—whether literal Montanan wilderness in Fourth of July Creek; the twin oubliettes of death row and mental illness in The Enchanted; the bureaucratic nightmare of freedom granted or denied by a slip of paper in The Invention of Exile; the smiling panopticon of suburban gossip in The Land of Steady Habits; the simultaneous background radiation of disappointment and sudden, crushing tragedy that can be the American Dream realized in We Are Not Ourselves; the dystopian, beautiful-frightening paradox of a futuristic folktale in The Great Glass Sea; or the rising waters of magic and desire, both powerful and neither controllable, in Land of Love and Drowning.

These were beautiful wildernesses to get lost in—my favorites, determined largely by personal obsessions with Montana and Russia, were Fourth of July Creek and The Great Glass Sea. Each novel pulls heavily from its setting’s local folklore to tell a new and gripping story without the satisfaction of a neat ending, happy or sad—and, of course, thus delivering one that satisfies at a deeper, grittier, more important level. As I wrote of Fourth of July Creek for The Common: “It is reminiscent of the best fairy tales—by which I mean not that its story is simple or cautionary, but that reading it enchants the world with terror and joy and chaos, the way fairy tales did in childhood.”

I’ll certainly be making this read-through of The Center for Fiction’s award shortlist a yearly ritual from now on.