Monday 5 December 2016

Quality writing will always be relevant

Following the Irish Novel of the Year shortlist, Alison Walsh finds reasons to be cheerful about our literary state

Alison Walsh

Published 21/11/2010 | 05:00

Book awards shortlists always attract discussion -- that's the great thing about them. It's a sign that people are interested enough to have opinions about them. And the Irish Novel of the Year shortlist, announced recently, is no different.

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Of course, there have been those who've moaned about it: that it's too establishment or not establishment enough, too literary or not literary enough, that it shows that we are too hung up on the past, on literary tradition, that there aren't enough women, or not enough new writers. And this year, the arguments have, arguably, a greater resonance. With the times that we are in, people expect books to offer something other than mere escapism: they have to, in some way, capture the zeitgeist in this time of great change and turbulence.

But this shortlist -- Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin, Colm Toibin for Brooklyn, Roddy Doyle for The Dead Republic, Emma Donoghue for Room, Paul Murray for Skippy Dies, and Joseph O'Connor for Ghost Light -- is interesting for a number of reasons, which have little to do with the zeitgeist.

Some have complained about what they see as a peculiarly Irish obsession with the past, and sure, some of the shortlisted writers have explored the past, and how it has shaped us, but crucially, each has reinterpreted it in new and fresh ways. Roddy Doyle's hugely ambitious trilogy about Ireland comes to a close with The Dead Republic, in which hero Henry Smart has fought in 1916 and gone to Prohibition America, and now John Huston wants to make a film about him, an Irish revolutionary, in which "no-one gets shot in the back. No-one gets shot at all".

Joseph O'Connor re-imagines the relationship between one of our iconic playwrights, JM Synge and actress Molly Allgood, between Protestant and Catholic, which on the one hand could only have taken place in the narrow Ireland of the turn of the century, but at the same time is a love story which resonates with any generation.

Colm Toibin recaptures the bleak certainties of the Fifties in Brooklyn, but ignores the conventions of the historical novel in favour of spare but beautiful prose, illuminating the constraints of convention and the pain of difficult choices.

Some bemoan the fact that Irish writers haven't "engaged" with the Celtic Tiger, but, frankly, why should they? Unless they dabbled in property development, the Celtic Tiger probably passed most writers by, and the notion that writers somehow have a responsibility to write about what was going on around them is bogus: there were lots of things going on around us, not just the purchasing of large amounts of patio furniture. And after all, that last orgy of flash vulgarity -- the Eighties -- was chronicled by a mere handful of writers: Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tom Wolfe, many of whom are indelibly connected with that era. The rest of the writing world had, and still has, other things on its mind.

What this shortlist proves is that the perennial themes still interest writers: birth, death, family, love -- these themes have deep resonances for us all. Thus, while the Joseph Fritzl case was a starting point for author Emma Donoghue, the child's-eye view of the world in Room makes what could have been a horror story something entirely new -- and what is more eternal than the bond between a mother and her child?

Author Colum McCann's magisterial reimagining of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers , Let the Great World Spin, tells us more about the end of a particular kind of American dream and about the people caught up in it, than one act of delightful folly.

Paul Murray gets to the savage heart of adolescent life, its secrets and rituals, as well as its joys, in the unforgettable Skippy Dies, but bonds of friendship and loyalty are at the heart of this novel, however fraught. Each novel is "relevant", precisely because it taps into something more profound and ambitious than simply what's in the news.

Yes, it's true that Emma Donoghue is the only woman on the shortlist, but the dearth of women literary writers in general, not just in Ireland, would require another article entirely; it's also true that with the exception of relative newcomer Paul Murray, the shortlist features established writers, but you can't argue with the quality of the titles, nor ignore Ed O'Loughlin and Alan Monaghan, both shortlisted in the Newcomer category in the book awards, and who have written about the distinctly non-zeitgeisty subjects of an African war and the Great War respectively.

What this shortlist shows is that Irish writing is a standard-bearer of literary quality. No Booker long or shortlist is complete without an Irish novel -- and that's because they are good, plain and simple. And there are many, many reasons to be optimistic about the health of Irish literary fiction.

Kevin Barry's first novel, City of Bohane, which will be published by Cape next summer, Belinda McKeon's Solace, described by Picador publisher Paul Baggaley as "the most accomplished and perfectly achieved debut novel I have come across in many years", or John Butler's The Tenderloin, set in San Francisco. Not to mention Peter Murphy's John the Revelator, or Trevor Byrne's sparkling debut Ghosts and Lightning, or short-story masters Philip O Ceallaigh and Claire Keegan, or Claire Kilroy, Chris Binchy and Kevin Power -- all of whom have written about contemporary Ireland vividly and with rare power, as it happens.

The shortlisted authors are leading the way for these writers, for a new and vibrant generation, who will write about things of concern to us, but who will also venture beyond our small island to bring our unique way of looking at the world to a wider audience.

To vote, visit www.irishbookwards.ie

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