Saturday 22 October 2016

Books - Best reads of 2015: Christmas gift ideas for bookworms...

John Boland on literary fiction for under the tree

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

Cream of the crop: Belinda McKeon
Cream of the crop: Belinda McKeon
Kevin Barry
Edna O'Brien
Harper Lee
Anne Tyler
Marlon James

The movie adaptation of Colm Tóibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn made deserved headlines this year, but there was no new fiction from the author. However, there were arresting novels by Anne Enright, Edna O'Brien, Paul Murray, Kevin Barry and Belinda McKeon, an outstanding novella by Colum McCann and striking story collections by Donal Ryan and John Boyne.

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Across the water, Jonathan Coe's Number 11 was an exuberant sequel to his 1994 state-of-the-nation satire What a Carve Up!, while Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant saw the author extending his already-impressive range with a Dark Ages fantasy. Meanwhile, in the United States, Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread demonstrated that, in the hands of a fictional genius, ordinary lives can be just as enthralling as the global concerns of a Jonathan Franzen.

The Green Road

by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

As with the same author's The Gathering, which won the Man Booker prize in 2008, this is the story of another dysfunctional Irish family, presided over by intimidatingly needy matriarch Rosaleen - "a woman who did nothing and expected everything". The novel is so absorbing and so alert to the quirks of its principal characters that by its end you want to know more about Rosaleen's two sons and two daughters and about what life still has in store for them.

The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

Ishiguro's first novel in a decade may come as a surprise even to those fans who are accustomed to his fondness for genre-bending. Here he's in post-Roman England, telling a tale that involves inimical tribes, fearsome creatures, a decrepit Sir Gawain and a frail old couple's search for their lost son. It's beautifully imagined, engrossingly told and has distinct contemporary resonances about the need both to remember and to forget.


by Kevin Barry (Canongate)

The award-winning author imagines John Lennon at a low personal and creative ebb returning to the Co Mayo island that the former Beatle had actually bought a decade earlier. This time he's in the company of local man Cornelius, who provides some raucous comic relief in a narrative that's often darkly surreal and ponders such notions as fame, alienation, loneliness and the legacy of a lost childhood.

The Illuminations

by Andrew O'Hagan (Faber)

Elderly Anne, who's in a Scottish care home, struggles with the onset of dementia while beloved grandson Luke encounters battle horrors as a soldier in Afghanistan. Then they meet up to confront a mystery about Anne's past in a novel that becomes deeply affecting as it questions whether there's any such thing as an ordinary life.

The Little Red Chairs

by Edna O'Brien (Faber)

In her first novel in 10 years, the 85-year-old Irish writer (inset) boldly tackles global evil as a rural Irish woman succumbs to the lure of a war criminal masquerading as a therapist (think Radovan Karadzic) and pays a dreadful price. Thereafter she flees to London and lives among similarly displaced people from various countries. The book is at its most affecting in evoking these unregarded lost souls as they seek dignity of work and peace of mind.

The Story of the Lost Child

by Elena Ferrante (Europa)

The fourth and final instalment in this saga of lifelong Neopolitan friends Lila and Lenu, whose lives take very different paths in an Italy that's mostly inimical to their needs and desires. The fiercely private Ferrante's identity is still unknown, but her fame has been assured by this extraordinary fictional achievement.

The Mark and the Void

by Paul Murray (Hamish Hamilton)

Murray's first novel since the acclaimed Skippy Dies is a gleeful, and often exuberantly funny satire on an Ireland that's in the process of vanishing down a financial plughole. Amiable Frenchman Claude is the Dublin-based young banker who narrates this tale of greed and hubris among colleagues who fancy themselves as masters of the universe. A plotline involving a down-at-luck author doesn't quite work, but there's real panache in the way Murray skewers the political and economic venalities that brought about the country's downfall.

Go Set a Watchman

by Harper Lee (Heinemann)

This novel was rejected in the mid-1950s by Lee's publisher, who suggested she rework it from the perspective of childhood. The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, whose classic status ensured that this year's publication of Go Set a Watchman was sensationally greeted, though it's a much lesser achievement than its famous successor and paints a troubling portrait of Atticus Finch as a man who espoused racism. But it's worth reading as a period piece.

Thirteen Ways of Looking

by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)

The title novella, which is as fine as anything McCann has written, tells of the last hours in the life of retired New York judge J Mendelssohn, who's attacked and killed as he leaves a restaurant. The judge's life is wonderfully evoked and the story also succeeds as a thriller in which surveillance plays a prominent role. Three short stories complete the book, the last a powerful tale of an elderly nun who confronts the now respectable diplomat who raped and tortured her decades earlier.


by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate)

Yet another family saga from the writer who achieved fame with The Corrections and consolidated it with Freedom. Here, the scope and sweep are even wider, as young Purity seeks to discover the identity of her father and finds herself in the Bolivian jungle with an Assange-like internet hacker who harbours a secret of his own that he doesn't want revealed. Expertly plotted and often brilliantly written, if not noticeably sympathetic to its female characters.


by Belinda McKeon (Picador)

A poignant coming-of-age novel seen from the perspective of Trinity student Catherine, who moves from trying to find suitable lovers for gay best friend James to falling in love with him herself, leading to consequences she's unable to control. The book expertly captures both the giddiness of teenage infatuation and the frightening obsessiveness into which such infatuations can descend, and it bravely declines to offer any glib resolution for its troubled central character.

A Slanting of the Sun

by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)

Twenty short stories, most of them no longer than 10 pages, from the deservedly acclaimed author of The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December. Once again, the place is rural Ireland and the subjects are loneliness, loss, deprivation, frustration and the savagery that these can often breed. Heir to John McGahern, Ryan proves himself a master of the short form, with many of the stories packing a lethal punch, though there's a real empathy here, too.

A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)

The great American novelist once again celebrates ordinary lives in the mundane surroundings of her beloved Baltimore, and once again finds both comedy and tragedy among her outwardly unremarkable people as they falter through friendships, relationships and setbacks.


by Dermot Bolger (New Ireland)

A cautionary Celtic Tiger tail as two old schoolfriends form a property partnership in Blackrock just as the economic bubble is about to burst. Bolger writes witheringly of the boom years and of the people who were enslaved to its greed and corruption, reserving his sympathy for the hapless innocents drawn into the vortex.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

by Marlon James (Oneworld)

This year's Man Booker winner, the first by a Jamaican, explores the events surrounding the shooting of reggae star Bob Marley in 1976 and also concerns the rise of crack cocaine in the US. Told through a variety of voices - a gangster, groupie, CIA operative, among others - it's often unsettlingly violent but it's not without humanity.

The Blue Guitar

by John Banville (Viking)

Failed painter Oliver Orme is in a long line of self-absorbed, culture-quoting Banville anti-heroes, and there are times you may want to strangle him. But there's something oddly touching about this unprepossessing middle-aged man as he mulls over the loss of his artistic intent, the doomed affair with his best friend's wife and the long-ago loss of an infant daughter.

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