“We write about our shared past to understand our shared present,” declared Margaret Wrinkle when she was awarded the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize by the Center for Fiction on December 11 at New York’s Union League Club. Wrinkle’s award winner, Wash, darkly illuminates the treatment of slaves in America; as a white woman born in the segregated South, she recognizes that history never stops happening and that literature is a terrific tool for bringing us into the minds of others.
The same could be said of all the finalists: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days (Knopf), an aching tale about a Navy SEAL son gone missing in the Middle East; Marjorie Celona’s Y (Free Pr.), about a woman’s bittersweet quest to determine why she was abandoned as a child; Christopher Hacker’s wisely entertaining The Morels (Soho), whose protagonist has written a book that upends his relationship with his wife and child; Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years (Bloomsbury USA), a searing look at race and poverty in America; Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth: Crown), an LJ Best Book that plumbs the depths of despair during Chechnya’s protracted conflict; Kirstin Scott’s Motherlunge (New Issues), a discovery for me about sex, love, motherhood, and sibling rivalry; and Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go (Penguin Pr.), a sparkling tale of family reconciliation in Ghana after a wayward patriarch’s death.
Every one of these novels is well worth reading and every author well worth watching; the Center for Fiction always produces an excellent first fiction list, among its other fine work. A final note to a tremendous evening: the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Field of Fiction was given to Knopf Vice President, Editorial Director Robin Desser, with a gracious and grateful Edwidge Danticat presenting. Among the revelations from this editor, whose authors range from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and David Guterson to Alan Hollinghurst and Jhumpa Lahiri: she got her first job in publishing because her librarian mother pulled out an ad from Library Journal.