There is a saying that a person is only as sick as their secrets, and that adage rings triply true in the debut novel Here Comes the Sun by Brooklyn author Nicole Dennis-Benn. In the book, a mother pimps out her daughter to a stranger for sex in a misguided attempt to thwart the young woman's budding sexual desires; an older sister prostitutes teenage girls to help pay for her younger sibling's school tuition; and a young girl dutifully applies toxic potions to her skin and prays to become lighter so that she can escape it all. The most heartbreaking part of this story, though, is that airing out your secrets doesn't always translate to getting better. In fact, sometimes, it makes things worse. Dennis-Benn's novel might look bright and cheery by the outside cover. But don't be fooled. There is a darkness within it that never lets up, from the first page to the last. That's also the reason to pick up this debut, which tells the story of a family mired in poverty just a stone's throw from the luxurious resorts of Jamaica's Montego Bay. Margot was born to a teenage Delores, who herself grew up in an inland shantytown, dragged down by circumstance before she ever even had a chance. Fifteen years later, Dolores finds herself pregnant again, this time with Thandi, a preternaturally gifted and serious little girl on whom both Margot and Delores pin their hopes. Thandi is pushed toward success from the start: Nearly everything her mother and sister do is about helping her to succeed and achieve, with the goal of lifting the entire family out of poverty. But as Thandi grows up, she realizes that she doesn't want her whole life plotted out for her — nor does she want to ignore her burgeoning artistic talents, or her growing feelings for a young man who might be the only person who inspires her to break away from expectations and follow her own path in life.
Every one of these characters will, in turn, bring tears to your eyes and a boil to your blood.
But while Thandi is coming of age, Margot is fighting tooth and nail to be named the general manager of an island resort — and she really will do anything to get what she wants when it comes to money and power. Things are especially complicated in Margot's personal life: She's in love — and has been for years — with someone who would free her to finally live the life she's always wanted. In the end, Margot is left with a choice: to escape into the happiness of a relationship with the woman she loves but live forever in social exile, or to get the material possessions she has always dreamed of and leave her lover behind. Despite the sadness and sheer desperation threaded into Dennis-Benn's book, there is a richness to the way the author writes about Jamaican culture and identity, along with the New World colonialism that has cropped up along the nation's shores, leaving its people with the scraps of whatever wealthy tourists don't want. But Here Comes the Sun is also a story about resilience and identity, the will to persevere in the face of extreme adversity. It may not be a tale of triumph, and every one of these characters will, in turn, bring tears to your eyes and a boil to your blood. But they are each fighting for a better life. And in that way, this book treads into brave territory. The struggle is not a beautiful one. But it is deeply powerful. Break in Case of Emergency, the debut novel from Slate writer Jessica Winter, is not, by contrast, a profoundly powerful novel. But it is another nuanced look at the way that triads of women engage with one another over long periods of time — and how, particularly in the rat race of New York City, the successes of others often serve to highlight your own shortcomings. Jen has been best friends with Pam and Meg since college, and considers herself behind them both when it comes to personal and professional accomplishments. A talented portraitist, Jen is prone to constant apologizing and never taking herself quite seriously enough, while Pam is a dedicated starving artist with a secret safety net, and Meg embodies the essence of upper-crust chic in all that she does. After losing her job, Jen secures a new post at an up-and-coming, celebrity-funded feminist nonprofit, hoping to bring some good into the world. Instead, she finds she's entered a funhouse of ever-shifting objectives and meaningless initiatives, where she's constantly patronized by a bitchy boss and surrounded by fawning underlings who want only to bask in the glow of their famous patron. On top of all of this, Jen and her husband are struggling to conceive, which only makes Jen feel even more like the most inadequate member of her trio of friends. But when Pam launches a new art show prominently featuring Jen's work, suddenly Jen is being recognized for her talents — attention that she's not quite sure how to field. In the end, her rising star threatens her friendships, just when she needs them most. Wry and unerringly sharp, Break in Case of Emergency is a smart look at so-called "first-world problems" — and a reminder that, first-world or not, they have a tendency to wreak havoc on our lives in a way that, at least for a moment, feels entirely insurmountable. Here Comes the Sun was released July 5. Break in Case of Emergency was released July 12.