If there's a defining motif in this year's shortlist for the Eason Novel of the Year in the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, it's the power of the past. Not 'The Past', with which Irish writers are supposed to be obsessed, that of the Civil War, priests and nuns and cows and lots of rain.
The writers on the shortlist have constructed vastly different kinds of past, each bringing a fresh perspective on what's gone before and on what it means to the present.
For Donal Ryan in The Thing About December, it's our recent, turbulent past, in which a seemingly benign rural landscape gives birth to the ruthless avarice of the Celtic Tiger. For Frank McGuinness, it's the dark shadow cast by the Second World War in Arimathea; for Gavin Corbett, it's the richness of stories passed through generations in This Is The Way, and for Catherine Dunne, it's the dark shadow of family secrets and the awful clarity of hindsight in The Things We Know Now. For Colum McCann, it's the tides of history in TransAtlantic, and for Roddy Doyle, it's the unfulfilled dreams and hopes of youth in The Guts. For all of these writers, the past isn't static or worthy, a pastiche, or a nostalgia-fest; instead, it's something living, vital, that shapes events and people, that pushes into the present.
"Sometimes we almost feel that we're doomed to repeat the past – I don't believe that we are," said Dunne when interviewed on www.writing.ie about The Things We Know Now. Thus, her hero, the flawed Patrick, tries to make sense of the dark threads that interweave in his life and that of his ordinary family, following a devastating loss. He looks back over his life, the choices he made, the mistakes, and wonders, like so many of us, what if... But, crucially, this journey to the past is not made to wallow, to allow regret to pull him under, but to heal wounds, to help in understanding some modern problems and to make those first steps, changed, into the future.
American novelist EL Doctorow said: "The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." McCann tells readers what it feels like to step into the shoes of aviators Alcock and Brown as they pilot the first Transatlantic flight, and if this weren't enough, he ties it to the arrival in Ireland of black American slave Frederick Douglass during the Famine and then to Senator George Mitchell's stay in Northern Ireland during the Peace Process. These factual strands he interweaves with those of his fictional creations, such as Lily, the housemaid inspired by Douglass to make her own journey across the Atlantic, and her daughter, who, 30 years later, will photograph the landing of that first great flight.
McCann's novel is about characters swept along by the tides of history, but it also bears witness to the idea that fiction can often teach us more than fact, can illuminate the darker corners of our lives with a unique resonance.
In Ryan's The Thing About December, what we think we understand about rural life, that it's somehow simpler, kinder, more authentic, is turned on its head by greed, in the brutal exploitation of vulnerable Johnsey Cunliffe. It's 2001, and Johnsey, a loner, bereaved and grieving, is sitting on a goldmine, which the locals in his town are determined to exploit, whether he likes it or not. In this novel and in The Spinning Heart, Ryan struck at the heart of our recent past, chronicling our mistakes with distilled energy in a way that, arguably, no work of non-fiction about devious bankers or developers has. As John Boyne said: "He is indisputably carving his own terrain with these short, fierce books that strike at the heart of what it has meant to be Irish in recent times, challenging us to examine our own failings instead of those of faceless institutions, reproving those who gambled and now cry victim."
Doyle did much the same for an earlier, some might say bleaker, Ireland – if such a thing were possible. His landmark novels both celebrated and castigated life as it was lived in the 1980s, that decade of unemployment, struggles with the Church and the shadow cast by the Troubles. In The Guts, he returns to his beloved Barrytown and to our ordinary hero Jimmy Rabbitte.
Gabriel Byrne, writing about the novel in the Irish Times, said: "We know they must have changed, yet we want to believe, illogically, that they haven't, and that the past has remained as we remember it."
But Doyle's novel is no trip down memory lane. The Guts is about guts, literally and metaphorically, as Jimmy faces his own mortality in the shape of bowel cancer, is tempted by the charms of long-lost love, in what is ultimately a celebration of life and love.
For McGuinness in Arimathea, the past is the "concealed cruelties of this insular community", as Eimear MacBride put it, the community being a village in rural Donegal just after the Emergency. Close to Derry, this is a place both touched and untouched by war, until a mysterious Italian painter comes to town. Gianni's arrival stirs all kinds of emotions; from jealousy as his landlady, Margaret, endures local suspicions about why she is taking in this stranger, to affection, as her daughter, Euni, finds this man an ally in her small world, to rage, as poor Betty, who lost her sons during the War, accuses the Italian of stealing them away. McGuinness's debut evokes the hardships of life in Donegal, but it also, in its biblical motifs and mysterious title, asks questions that go to the heart of what people believe.
Corbett looks at a way of life that reaches back into the deepest past to create a vivid and vibrant picture of modern life, in This Is The Way. When Traveller Anthony Sonaghan's mother tells him about the history of his family, it has something of the mythic about it: "They was fish says my mother. The Sonaghans and the Gillaroos all was once fish... it was all once a lake where the Sonaghan fish and the Gillaroo fish did live."
But the two families are now locked in a bitter feud and Anthony has come to Dublin to escape, forced to live both outside his own community and the settled one. Anthony's vivid voice reminds us of an oral tradition that we all share on this island, but also, through the freshness of his observations, he gives us a way of understanding our present and our past. As Anthony himself says, in an observation that could describe all of the novels on the shortlist: "The stories went on today and the stories went on before, they were all waiting for people to tell them".
Readers can cast their vote for the Eason Novel of the Year via the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards website www.bgeirishbookawards.ie. Votes can be cast until midnight on November 21, 2013 and the winners will be announced at a gala event in The Double Tree by Hilton Hotel (formerly The Burlington) on Tuesday, November 26.