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First novels can be reflections of their times; they can also be prescient. Because U.S. presidential elections are landmark events, we were curious about first novels that appeared between 2016 and 2020. We discovered that Booklist bestowed starred reviews on an array of works with global scope, novels that grapple compassionately, imaginatively, humorously, and righteously with discrimination’s many forms, including racism, sexism, and classism, and their persistent and malignant consequences.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues. By Devi S. Laskar. 2019. Counterpoint, $16.95 (9781640093416).
At once tragically and infuriatingly timely and timeless, Laskar’s powerful drama takes place over the course of one morning, yet covers lifetimes. An American of Bengali descent and her three daughters living in an Atlanta suburb have been continually harassed and discriminated against. She now lies bleeding outside her home, shot by a government agent.
The God Child. By Nana Oforiatta Ayim. 2020. Bloomsbury, $26 (9781408882429).
Living as a young expat in late-twentieth-century Germany and England, Maya is keenly aware of her heritage as the granddaughter of a Ghanaian king, and chafes at the casually patronizing racism rampant at school, only becoming aware of just how significant and potentially dangerous her inheritance can be when her parents adopt Kojo, a god child.
The Gringo Champion. By Aura Xilonen. Tr. by Andrea Rosenberg. 2017. Europa, $17 (9781609453657).
Young, tenacious Liborio had endured relentless abuse and violence, then is forced to leave Mexico illegally for the U.S., where he secures a job in a bookstore, only to be left bereft once again. Xilonen’s electrifying debut not only crosses the border, but also pushes the boundaries of fiction.
If I Had Your Face. By Frances Cha. 2020. Ballantine, $27 (9780593129463).
Cha confronts some of the darkest consequences of contemporary gender inequity by targeting the erasure of female individuality by oppressive beauty standards and expectations in Korea via four very different but determined women in a Seoul apartment building who refuse to be stifled by their unforgiving society.
Marriage Material. By Sathnam Sanghera. 2016. Europa, $18 (9781609453077).
Sanghera connects the intricate, meandering, warmhearted, and wise saga of Arjan Banga and his immigrant Sikh family to his grandfather’s West Midands convenience store and the 1960s and 1970s racial conflicts and turmoil that spurred their leaving India and shadowed their efforts to create new lives in England.
New Waves. By Kevin Nguyen. 2020. Random/One World, $27 (9781984855237).
If a Venn diagram highlighted the overlaps among racism, sexism, technology, and millennial ennui, Nguyen’s edgy novel about Lucas, an Asian American who leaves Oregon for New York and become a tech-firm sales representative, and brilliant and forthright African American programmer Margo, would be right at the center.
No Other World. By Rahul Mehta. 2017. Harper, $25.99 (9780062020468).
Buried secrets, suppressed desires, racism, sexual abuse, questions about sexual identity, loneliness, and the hardships of western New York threaten to tear apart an Indian-American immigrant family in Mehta’s ruminative and emotionally resonant first novel.
A Particular Kind of Black Man. By Tope Folarin. 2019. Simon & Schuster, $26 (9781501171819).
Being Black in America, especially in white Utah, is difficult enough. But Tunde Akinola is crushed by the weight of his additional burdens: being the son of a Nigerian immigrant, his father’s own challenges of navigating America with black skin, his responsibility for his younger brother, and worst of all, his mother’s schizophrenia.
Queenie. By Candice Carty-Williams. 2019. Gallery/Scout, $16 (9781501196027).
Asked by her boyfriend to move out, estranged from her mother, beyond bored at work, and having gone through a miscarriage, Jamaican British Queenie is having a rough go in London. Carty-Williams’ smart, funny, tender tale entertains while tackling topics like mental health and stigma, racism and tokenism, gentrification, and the isolation of social-media and dating-app culture.
She Would Be King. By Wayétu Moore. 2018. Graywolf, $16 (9781644450017).
Moore’s magic-realism tour de force take readers on a journey through the beginnings of Liberia via the stories of Gbessa, a girl shunned as a witch, who must learn to accept her immortality; June Dey, who possesses extraordinary strength; and Norman Aragon, who moves to the free state from Jamaica and has the power to disappear.
Song of a Captive Bird. By Jasmin Darznik. 2018. Ballantine, $17 (9780399182334).
Darznik’s enthralling and harrowing biographical first novel fictionalizes the life of feminist Iranian poet and filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–67), who is forced out of Tehran and into a smothering early marriage but boldly returns to the city to battle sexist oppression and pursue her revolutionary creative life, ultimately losing her child, and, for a time, her sanity and her freedom.
We Cast a Shadow. By Maurice Carlos Ruffin. 2019. Random/One World, $27 (9780525509066).
After the narrator of this trenchant satire is hired as the Black face of a racist corporation, he is determined to medically “demelanize” his biracial son to rescue him from life as a Black man. Set in a disturbingly familiar near future, in which entire Black neighborhoods are imprisoned in the name of security, Ruffin’s brilliant and devastating debut novel is a harsh indictment of a society that views Blackness as a disorder and forces Black men to choose between self-respect and survival.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman. By Kaitlyn Greenidge. 2016. Algonquin, $15.95 (9781616206444).
When Laurel, an African-American mother from Boston’s South Side, accepts a position to teach sign language to a chimpanzee named Charlie at a private ape research facility in the Berkshires with a grim history of appallingly racist experiments, she unwittingly introduces her two young daughters to a disturbing world of mystery and misogyny, racism and retaliation.
What We Lose. By Zinzi Clemmons. 2017. Penguin, $16 (9780735221734).
Clemmons’ spectacular debut combines photographs, diagrams, and blog posts to amplify an intimate story of personal loss into a larger narrative of identity, family, race, and socioeconomic access as it tells the story of Thandi, who grows up privileged as a “light” African American in Philadelphia, her skin color a barometer of fraught relationships and the the politics of race.
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