Tuesday 27 September 2016

Rich pickings for winner of Dublin Literary Award

The winner of the Dublin Literary Award will pocket a cool €100,000, but the prize's eclectic shortlist - nominated by libraries around the world - generously rewards readers, too

Edel coffey

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

The shortlist for the International Dublin Literary Award was announced last week.
The shortlist for the International Dublin Literary Award was announced last week.
Akhil Sharma
Marlon James
Mary Costello
Jenny Offhil
Marilynne Robinson.

The shortlist for this year's International Dublin Literary Award (formerly the IMPAC) was announced earlier this week and Irish writer Mary Costello is in the running.

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With €100,000 up for grabs, it is the world's most valuable literary prize and yet the award seems strangely overlooked in terms of fanfare and international profile (compare it to the Booker Prize, for example, with its £50,000 prize money). Not that it matters to whichever writer scoops the €100,000.

The prize was initially funded by an American company called IMPAC, hence the name, but is now funded by Dublin City Council and has been since last year, when the IMPAC fund ran out and the award was renamed the International Dublin Literary Award.

For me, this prize's shortlist is always a winner for readers as the books are chosen by libraries around the world. I've honestly never read a book from this list that I didn't enjoy.

Each library, from a selection of 100 public ones around the world, nominate up to three books each year with the result that there is usually a good mix of books in translation. Traditionally, the prize has also rewarded these works, bringing writers like Gerbrand Bakker to the attention of many readers. Because the books are chosen by libraries, they tend to be a couple of years old, so perhaps that's why the prize doesn't garner as much media interest as others but, as a reader, it's one of the best places to start for recommendations.

This year's shortlisted titles include Irish author Mary Costello, for her book Academy Street. This is Costello's debut novel and was published by Canongate to much acclaim. The writing is profoundly restrained in its telling of Tess's life story, as she moves from the west of Ireland to bustling New York in the 1960s. Costello follows Tess's life over four decades, feeding out the details of one ordinary woman's life, and measuring the moments of tragedy, love and loss that come to each and every one of us.

As always, there are plenty of books in translation on the list, too. The Spanish novel Outlaws by Javier Cercas, is set in the late 1970s in post-fascist Spain. This novel explores themes of loyalty and betrayal as criminal defence lawyer Canas is brought back to his past as a delinquent teenager when an imprisoned drug lord requests him as his counsel.

The End of Days, by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, tells the story of one woman five times over, at various points in 20th-century history. It's a sort of literary Sliding Doors and a quirky method of relating Germany's history during those 100 years.

Diary of the Fall by Brazilian author Michel Laub tells the story of three generations of men. One is trying to come to terms with childhood mistakes, another is trying to cope with his Alzheimer's, writing everything down in an attempt to remember, while another is trying to forget his memories of Auschwitz. Laub was named one of Granta's 20 Best Young Brazilian Novelists in 2012.

Our Lady of the Nile is the debut novel from Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga. Mukasonga left Rwanda and settled in France just two years before the Tutsi genocide, in which 27 members of her family were massacred. She has already written an award-winning autobiographical account of her horrific family history. Her entry into the world of fiction is set in an elite Catholic boarding school for girls at the end of the 1970s and Mukasonga uses the school as a microcosm of society's racial tensions at the time and the events they will lead to.

My money is on Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, which was so popular at the time of its publication. The book chronicles a marriage through several vignettes, but it is more than just another book about relationships. It looks at the subsumation of the self that can happen within various kinds of love - marriage, motherhood - and asks the reader the question how do you hold on to yourself and yet give yourself fully as a wife and mother?

Fellow American Marilynne Robinson can't be ruled out either, revered as she is for her novel Lila, a follow-up of sorts to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gilead. Robinson's novels are strangely affecting, and read like fables for our times with their deep, meditative reflections on what it is to be human.

Her countrymen Akhil Sharma and Dave Eggers are also in the running with their respective novels, Family Life and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Sharma was born in Dehli and now lives in New York, where he writes for The New Yorker and The Atlantic among others. Family Life tells the story of an Indian family who emigrate to America, where they experience a tragedy that changes the course of their lives. Telling the story in the voice of the 8-year-old Ajay allows Sharma to be brutally honest as well as cleverly introducing an element of black humour to the story.

Eggers is probably still best-known for his debut work, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius but he also runs the very successful literary magazine called McSweeney's and a writing school for children in San Fransisco, 826 Valencia, which was the inspiration for Roddy Doyle's Fighting Words enterprise in Dublin. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is set in a barracks on an abandoned military base. Kev, a NASA astronaut, has been captured by Thomas, who wants Kev to answer a few questions.

Finally, last year's Booker prize winner, Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, has made the cut and can't be ruled out of having a better than average chance at winning this prize. James, a Jamaican, fictionalised an infamous event in Jamaican history, the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.

The winner will be announced by on June 9 - which leaves plenty of time to read all 10 books! We will be reviewing them in these pages over the coming weeks.

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