The best debut novels of all time

Twelve of the best debut books you need to add to your reading list.

Have you ever challenged yourself to go back to where it all began and read the very first book by your favourite author? It makes for a pleasant surprise to discover that our beloved literary greats have been just that from the very beginning. Here's our list of twelve must-read debut novels by esteemed literary and classic authors. Once you've read these, you can really call yourself a fan. . .

The Orchard Keeper

by Cormac McCarthy

Book cover for The Orchard Keeper

Cormac McCarthy was one of America’s finest and most celebrated authors, with over ten books to his name across a career spanning nearly sixty years. If you’re a fan, you’ll know McCarthy wrestles with the dark aspects of America’s past and present - but have you travelled all the way back to his earliest classic? McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper, is a standalone novel, set in a small, remote community in rural Tennessee in the 1920’s. Winner of the Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel, this book has earned a place among literary giants. 

Stir Fry

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Stir Fry

Can you honestly say you love literary fiction if you haven’t read a book by Emma Donoghue? You’ve probably read Room, a beloved novel-turned blockbusting film, but her first novel, Stir Fry, is equally poignant, and will stay with you long after the final page. This insightful coming-of-age story explores love between women and probes feminist ideas of sisterhood. There’s nothing like reading an author's entire body of work, especially one that is so sparklingly diverse and has been adapted for the screen not once, but twice, with The Wonder out on Netflix on 16 November.

The People in the Trees

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for The People in the Trees

You’ve probably read or at least heard about the award-winning A Little Life, by Hanya Yanahigara. But you can’t be a true admirer if you haven’t read her first, debut novel, The People in the Trees, which marked her as a remarkable new voice in American fiction. It is 1950, when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island where he encounters a strange tribe of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality. We know that Hanya Yanaghiara has a way with words that can puncture you emotionally, and this all began with the haunting, but bewitching, The People in the Trees.

The Pickwick Papers

by Charles Dickens

Book cover for The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens’ era-defining novels undoubtedly belong in a list of the best books of all time. But we’re here to talk about The Pickwick Papers, his debut novel and a comic masterpiece which first brought this iconic writer to fame. Originally published in a series of magazine instalments, in novel form it is a hefty 1,080 pages, but you’ll be acquainted with some of fiction’s most endearing and memorable characters. It’s a classic, so you’ve got to give this work of literary invention your utmost attention if you haven’t already.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Book cover for Before the Coffee Gets Cold

What would you change if you could go back in time? You’d read this novel when it was a bestseller in Japan in 2015 of course. . . Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the first book in this eponymous series about a coffee shop which offers its customers the chance to travel back in time. You’ll become captivated by four heartwarming characters as you follow their wistful attempts to change their respective pasts, whether that be seeing a loved one for one last time or confronting someone who did them wrong. An incredibly moving series that you have until September 2023 to become emotionally invested in, before the fourth adventure blesses our bookshelves.

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for The Miniaturist

Set in the golden city of Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is a historical novel with a strange secret at its heart. It’s 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Joannes Brant, who gifts her a cabinet-sized replica of their home. As she engages the services of a miniaturist, an elusive and enigmatic artist, his tiny creations start to mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways.

At the Bottom of the River

by Jamaica Kincaid

Book cover for At the Bottom of the River

Jamaica Kincaid’s books are beloved for their honest exploration of colonial legacy, full of unapologetic passion and defiance. Her first work, At the Bottom of the River, is a selection of inter-connected prose poems told from the perspective of a young Afro-Caribbean girl. You’ll not forget the way Kincaid explores the nature of mother-daughter relationships, and the short prose style will leave you wanting more. We think you should get to know this unique and necessary literary voice, starting with At the Bottom of the River.

Less Than Zero

by Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover for Less Than Zero

Years before American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis shocked, stunned and disturbed with his debut, a fierce coming-of-age novel about the casual nihilism that comes with youth and money. Less Than Zero is narrated by Clay, an eighteen-year-old student, whose story is filled with relentless drinking, wild, drug-fuelled parties and dispassionate sexual encounters. This unflinching depiction of hedonistic youth and the consequences of such moral depravity, is neither condoned or chastised by the author. Published when he was just twenty-one, this extraordinary and instantly infamous work has become a cult classic and a timeless embodiment of the zeitgeist.

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

Book cover for Sense and Sensibility

No one can write quite like Jane Austen. Her six novels are famous for their witty social commentary of British society in the early 19th century. Sense and Sensibility, her first novel, features two sisters of opposing temperament and their respective approaches to love. This comedy of manners is the humorous history lesson everyone needs.

Last Night in Montreal

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for Last Night in Montreal

If you’ve not heard of Emily St. John Mandel before, the New York Times bestselling author of Station Eleven, you have an incredible list of books to look forward to, starting with her extraordinary debut, Last Night in Montreal. Lilia has been leaving people behind her entire life, moving from city to city, abandoning lovers and friends along the way. Gorgeously written, charged with tension and foreboding, Last Night in Montreal is a novel about identity, love and amnesia, the depths and limits of family bonds and — ultimately — about the nature of obsession. 


by Kate Mosse

Book cover for Labyrinth

Three secrets. Two women. One Grail. . . Kate Mosse’s debut, Labyrinth, an archaeological mystery set in both the Middle Ages and present-day France, is the first book in the bestselling Languedoc trilogy. When Alice Tanner discovers two skeletons in a forgotten cave, she unearths a link to a horrific past. Brought vividly to life by actress Louise Brealey’s narration, this unabridged audiobook also includes extra content read by the author herself. Discover more brilliant books by Kate Mosse in our guide to her books in order

Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

Book cover for Burial Rites

Inspired by actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving first novel that will transport you to Northern Iceland in 1829, where Agnes Magnúsdóttir is a woman condemned to death for her part in the murder of her lover. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out to uncover the truth – winter is coming, and with it is Agnes’ execution date. Hannah Kent announced her arrival into the literary space with this speculative biography and it's rare to find a debut novel as sophisticated and gripping as this one.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

An oldie but a goldie, you may have seen at least one incarnation of this pop-culture classic, whether it be on the radio, on film, or on the stage, but have you actually attempted the novel? Douglas Adams’ international bestseller follows the intergalactic (mis)adventures of ordinary Arthur Dent after he is whisked into space by his alien friend Ford. The pair go on an unforgettable adventure to learn the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Funny and totally unpredictable, this nonsensical universe is explored through five science fiction novels that you just have to experience, and DON’T PANIC, we have the whole box set.