A wild wave of new Irish writing
A new generation of writers, including the eight here, are searching far beyond Ireland for ideas, finds Alison Walsh
THE year 2001 was a vintage one in Irish writing, with the publication of Jamie O'Neill's unforgettable At Swim, Two Boys, Nuala O'Faolain's first novel My Dream of You, Dermot Bolger's The Valparaiso Voyage, Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl and John Connolly's The Killing Kind.
These authors represented the best of Irish writing when it was considered to be a national pursuit, encouraged by such luminaries as David Marcus, pushed along on a wave of self-confidence and the sense that our time had come.
Ten years later, Ireland is a very different place, battered economically, introspective, that old swagger long gone. But what of its writers? Who are the new writers of promise and how do they wear the mantle inherited from Roddy Doyle, Colm Toibin, Joseph O'Connor and Anne Enright?
Whenever Irish writing is discussed, there's the small matter of inheritance, accusations that it's mired in the past, in the old conflicts, in the small expectations of rural life. But what's most striking about this new generation is the freedom they have, the liberty to search the world for refreshing perspectives. Denis Kehoe's novel Walking on Dry Land chronicles a woman's search for her roots, but in Portugal and Angola, not Dublin and Cork; Christine Dwyer Hickey's Last Train from Liguria brings us to the Italian Riviera and to the rise of fascism in Thirties Italy; Philip O'Ceallaigh's short stories are set in the cities of eastern Europe and the doorsteps of small-town America; Aifric Campbell's The Semantics of Murder took us to Seventies Los Angeles.
But these writers are also re-imagining our own country with vivid energy. Peter Murphy's small Irish town is transformed into something unsettlingly biblical in John the Revelator, in Trevor Byrne's Ghosts and Lightning, the fringes of west Dublin crackle with energy and humour and Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, set 40 years in the future, could be any town riven by gang warfare, and yet its murky pubs and quiet back lanes, its deadpan humour, feel intensely Irish at the same time.
The perceived wisdom is that the boom in so-called popular women's writing mirrored the rise and rise of the Celtic Tiger and now that it has ceased to roar, the genre is on the wane. But it's also true that Irish women writers were lumbered with a label which didn't begin to describe the diversity of their offerings in the first place, from superstars such as Marian Keyes, who managed to cover issues such as depression and domestic violence in her zany, funny novels, to writers such as Sinead Moriarty, whose The Baby Trail is a very funny novel, but which dealt with the pain of infertility, or Emma Hannigan on the complexities of motherhood in Miss Conceived. And then there are the newer novels which take the genre forward, such as Ciara Geraghty's quirky, warm books, which deal with missing parents, accidental pregnancies and botched life plans.
It's probably more accurate to suggest it's not so much that women's fiction is on the wane, but that other genres are on the rise. In 2001, it would have been hard to predict the surge in crime writing which has taken place in Ireland, with the emergence of a new generation of talent.
Some, such as crime aficionado Declan Burke in his forthcoming book, Down these Green Streets, Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (Liberties Press), have attributed it to the death of the Troubles: when the darkness on our doorstep had faded, we were free to write about darker things, others to our increasing urbanisation and to the greater complexity of our society as it came of age -- as the godfather of the genre, Ken Bruen was quoted as saying: "I didn't want to write about the mean streets until we had them, but by God, we've got them now."
Whatever the arguments, it's clear that Irish writing is more complex and diverse than ever, with a greater range of influences and with global, as well as domestic, concerns. What it will look like in the future is anyone's guess, but the news that the Hennessy New Irish Writing page, which gave so many Irish writers their start, has found a new home at the Irish Independent, brings with it a reassuring continuity.
An advertising copywriter of some renown, Ella Griffin branched out into popular fiction with Postcards from the Heart (Orion). With mordant humour and funny set pieces, she dips into the lives of two 30-something couples: strait-laced advertising exec Saffy and her hugely entertaining and unreliable fiance, TV star Greg, and Conor, the hapless dad who is trying to write a novel and care for his children, while his lazy, lovable partner Jess struggles with her own shortcomings. Griffin injects a touch of Woody Allenesque humour and brisk sophistication.
Arts journalist and playwright Belinda McKeon's debut novel Solace will be published by Picador in August. A sparely written book of huge emotional power, it opens on a small farm in Longford, with two men, father and son, thrown together as the result of a family tragedy. Described by publisher Paul Baggaley as “the most accomplished and perfectly achieved debut novel I have come across in many years”, Solace brings alive the rural experience and the conflicting values of contemporary Ireland, but is also a richly compelling love story.
Northern Irishman Stuart Neville exploded on to the scene with his first novel The Twelve, in which paramilitary Gerry Fegan is haunted by the ghosts of the 12 people he has killed and sets out to avenge those who set them up in the first place. A blistering thriller and a searching look at the dark inheritance of the Troubles, Neville's novel was greeted with admiration and praise. John Connolly proclaimed it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last 10 years, but is also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times”.
Dubliner Yvonne Cassidy is one of a number of Irish writers looking at the darker, spookier side of life, at the undercurrents of respectability. In her debut novel The Other Boy (Hachette Books Ireland), JP is haunted by dark memories of his childhood and by the sudden reappearance of his brother Dessie, shattering the new life in London he has so carefully built for himself. It’s unsettling subject matter, which takes popular writing into new territory.
One of Declan Burke's picks of 2010, Kevin McCarthy breaks new ground with his historical detective novel Peeler (Mercier), in which RIC officer Sean O'Keefe has to enlist the help of the loathed Black and Tans to track down a killer, who is also being pursued by the IRA. With its War of Independence setting, McCarthy has taken a subject ripe for exploitation and has transformed it into compelling and complex crime fiction.
Jane Casey is one of a new generation of crime writers looking outside this country for inspiration, in the shape of her creation Maeve Kerrigan, a feisty second-generation Irish detective working in London. British crime legend Reginald Hill described The Missing (Ebury), the first novel by this Irish book editor, as having, “A complex plot, deftly handled; a good puzzle, dextrously unfolded; interesting characters, lots of tension, and a user-friendly style; this is a truly striking debut.”
Writer and filmmaker John Butler's debut novel is a bracingly honest, entertaining and sharply well-observed coming of age story set in San Francisco during the dotcom boom. His hero, Evan, is an intensely likeable Everyman, out of his depth in ForwardSlash, run by the slyly manipulative Sam. The Tenderloin is a story which could only have been written now, but whose themes, the loss of innocence, the difficulties of embarking on adult life, are universal.
Shortlisted as a Newcomer of the Year at last year's Irish Book Awards, The Soldier's Song was something of a labour of love for Alan Monaghan, taking almost seven years to complete. In a clear-sighted and compelling story, Stephen Ryan, a young soldier in the First World War, has to endure the horrors of Ypres, but also the knowledge that his own brother is fighting another battle, against the British, on the streets of Dublin during 1916. The second in a planned trilogy, The Soldier's Return, has just been published.
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