They say writers hit their prime in their forties. Certainly, many of history’s greatest writers wrote their greatest works at various stages of life—some, like Toni Morrison, didn’t start writing until middle age. However, when a young writer debuts a great work of fiction, it always becomes an event. Here is a list of great debut novels written by writers before they were thirty years old.
Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920) was an immediate, spectacular success and established his literary reputation. Perhaps the definitive novel of that “Lost Generation,” it tells the story of Amory Blaine, a handsome, wealthy Princeton student who halfheartedly involves himself in literary cults, “liberal” student activities, and a series of empty flirtations with young women. When he finally does fall truly in love, however, the young woman rejects him for another.
At the center of this invigorating novel are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. Hapless veterans of World War II, Archie and Samad and their families become agents of England’s irrevocable transformation. Zadie Smith’s dazzling debut caught critics grasping for comparisons and deciding on everyone from Charles Dickens to Salman Rushdie to John Irving and Martin Amis. But the truth is that Zadie Smith’s voice is remarkably, fluently, and altogether wonderfully her own.
In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.
At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti—to the women who first reared her. At an astonishingly young age, Edwidge Danticat has become one of our most celebrated new novelists, a writer who evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti—and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women—with a vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.
Italo Calvino was only twenty-three when he first published this bold and imaginative novel. It tells the story of Pin, a cobbler’s apprentice in a town on the Ligurian coast during World War II. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, and spends as much time as he can at a seedy bar where he amuses the adult patrons. After a mishap with a Nazi soldier, Pin becomes involved with a band of partisans. Calvino’s portrayal of these characters, seen through the eyes of a child, is not only a revealing commentary on the Italian resistance but an insightful coming-of-age story.
In a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night and then set fire to her home. When their lifelong neighbor Akhmed finds Havaa hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.
It is 1967 and two Viennese university students want to liberate the Vienna Zoo, as was done after World War II. But their good intentions have both comic and gruesome consequences, in this first novel written by a twenty-five-year-old John Irving, already a master storyteller.