The next generation will bear the torch with pride
The novel is far from dead, as the raft of new writers dazzlingly proves, says Alison Walsh
If the voices of doom are to be believed, times have never been tougher for fiction. With all the other distractions in our time-pressured world, who has the time to read a novel? E-reading devices mean that we're all hooked on vampire erotica; literary fiction, we are told, is a thing of the past; chick lit is toast: and if you're a writer, it seems that your only chance at publication is if you include several murders and a dash of bondage in your carefully crafted novel.
And yet, this year has seen a remarkable flowering in Irish fiction, with a raft of writers emerging on to the literary scene and displaying a dazzling range of styles and preoccupations. Ergo, publishers are clearly still investing in new authors and, in spite of austerity and new technology, the new still has the power to inspire.
But who are these literary descendants of Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin, and what are they interested in writing about?
Of course, there's no escaping the question of the past in Irish fiction: the pall of it is supposed to hang dutifully over every Irish novel, and it's true that it exerts a powerful pull on new Irish voices, but it's not the past that we've come to expect – the Civil War, the grim privations of the 1950s, the watery landscape of rural Ireland.
For this generation, the past is less about a nation and more about the landscape of childhood, in which things are unpredictable and full of danger; in Susan Stairs' The Story of Before (Corvus, June), it's the halcyon fields of suburban Dublin in the 1970s, The Waltons and cowboy films on a Sunday evening, and the terrible things that can happen, even in paradise.
In Kevin Maher's The Fields (Little, Brown), it's the 1980s, but not that of the ra-ra skirt and plastic jewellery, but of changing times for the country, in a black comic tour de force, which introduces the unforgettable Jim Finnegan on to the literary landscape.
In Paul Lynch's Red Sky in Morning (Quercus), it's Donegal in the 19th century and a pursuit that recalls the great novels of the American West; in Michele Forbes's Ghost Moth (W&N), it's Belfast on the brink of disaster as the Troubles loom.
These debuts also capture the unique power of the voice, the first-person narrative that crackles off the page and that has so energised Irish fiction, from Patrick McCabe's extraordinary Francie in The Butcher Boy to John Banville's acid Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence.
In Ciaran Collins's The Gamal (Bloomsbury), we have Charlie, with his innocence and sly humour, his razor-sharp way of looking at the world and the horrors of what he's seen; in Niamh Boyce's The Herbalist (Penguin Ireland) it's teenager Emily who conveys, in the rich tones of the midlands, the true motives of the gorgeous visitor to her little town.
Arguably, the family is the subject of more or less every novel, but Irish families, perhaps because they are expected to enshrine some notion of Catholic perfection, exert a particular pull.
In Bethany Dawson's My Father's House (Liberties Press), successful journalist Robbie returns to the family farm in Co Down and to the father he's tried so hard to forget; Mary Grehan's Love is the Easy Bit (Penguin Ireland) punctures the myths about motherhood and asks uncomfortable questions about maternal love and sacrifice; poet Justin Quinn's Mount Merrion (Penguin Ireland), tells the story of 'pillars of society' Declan and Sinead Boyle and the trials and tribulations of Irish middle-class life over a period of 50 years; and in Gavin Corbett's This is the Way, which recently won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Traveller Anthony Sonaghan lies low in the city to escape his feuding family. The Travelling community are the great outsiders of Irish fiction, relegated to bit parts and side roles in Irish cultural life. Here, the voice of a Traveller comes to life in an extraordinary way, as does the clash between a truly ancient way of life and the modern world.
Of course, these novels are also about modern Ireland, as in Kevin Curran's Beatsploitation (Liberties Press), in which multicultural Ireland is put under the microscope as wannabe rock star and teacher Rob sees the musical talent in his rebellious African student John, a talent that Rob is eager to exploit; in Mark O'Sullivan's Crocodile Tears (Transworld Ireland) – about which Declan Burke declared, "I'll be very pleasantly surprised if there's a better Irish crime fiction debut" – the murder of a property developer introduces detective Leo Woods, whose condition has given him a unique perspective on the world; and in Billy Keane's The Ballad of Mo and G, forthcoming in September (Liberties), a black comedy set in a little town in the south-west of Ireland, where you can get drugs "in five minutes... [or] even quicker than in the city, because the traffic wasn't that bad".
And the bounty of new Irish writing continues into the autumn, with a short story collection from Stinging Fly discovery Colin Barrett, Young Skins; a taut psychological thriller by Virginia Gilbert, Travelling Companion (Liberties), and two fresh looks at our recent past and at male identity in Diarmuid O Conghaile's comic novel Being Alexander and AW Timmons's Here in No Place, as a young man looks for redemption against the backdrop of the recession (both New Island, September).
Publisher Declan Meade recently declared that newer Irish short story writers "don't want to feel that they are writing in a tradition", like that of the handknitted sweater or the bainin cap. And that's certainly true of this varied and exciting new wave of Irish writing, that seems to have taken a leap out of the past and that looks far beyond our island for inspiration.
But in a year that will see Roddy Doyle revisit the landscape and the characters of The Commitments, it's important to note that they fit into that tradition in a larger way. A tradition, if it doesn't sound too self-congratulatory, of producing fiction of the best and freshest kind.
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