Tuesday 12 November 2019

Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year shortlist - Six writers making sense of the world in bold new ways

Alison Walsh casts her eye over The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year shortlist

Author Nicole Flattery. Pic Steve Humphreys
Author Nicole Flattery. Pic Steve Humphreys
Dublin-born writer Anne Griffin
Emma Dabiri
Sarah Davis-Goff
Rónán Hession
Ian Maleney creates movement in the Offaly bogs which his family has always called home. Photo: Gareth Smyth

'There is no such thing as a new idea," said Mark Twain. All we do, he opined, is put old ideas through a mental kaleidoscope, rearranging them in a slightly different way, but ultimately "they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use throughout the ages".

This view might seem cynical - depressing even - but The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2019 demonstrates that innovation, newness, unique points of view and fresh ideas are important, not because they've never been written before, but because they come from writers who are engaging with the world and making sense of it in new and exciting ways.

In her novel When All is Said, Anne Griffin looks at a world many of us think we understand: that of the rural farmer. He's an Irish archetype, propped on a bar stool, cap plastered to his head, half pint of Guinness in hand. And yet, in Maurice Hannigan, she shows us a man on the precipice between life and death, in search of life's meaning, a lost soul in search of forgiveness.

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Sarah Davis-Goff

Sarah Davis-Goff may not be the first person to write a dystopian novel, but in Last Ones Left Alive, as Orpen wheels her mother's partner to safety in a wheelbarrow through a barely recognisable Irish landscape, she makes us rethink what we know about the genre, investing it with a lyricism and a sense of Irishness that brings it to new and exciting places.

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Nicole Flattery's characters in her blistering collection Show Them a Good Time may be people we know, the millennials so many of us scoff at, but she writes about them darkly and hilariously, forcing us to rethink the modern world, making it at once familiar and strange.

As one critic in this paper put it: "If tradition is the kitchen sink, Flattery removes it from the wall, smashes it to pieces and dances all over it with delight."

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Rónán Hession

Rónán Hession's charming, funny characters in Leonard and Hungry Paul are in search of nothing more than a nice board game and a cup of tea, but in fact, their gentle adventures force us to take a fresh look at the joy that is to be found in daily life.

If these ideas, these writers, aren't 'original', well, perhaps Michael Chabon's words are true: "All novels are second novels. Influence is bliss."

And while the two non-fiction works in this category are arguably bolts from the blue, in their vivid ways, they too owe their arrival to previous generations.

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Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri's Don't Touch My Hair traces the history of black hairstyling from colonial times all the way through the African-American social movements of the 1970s, to the natural hair movement of today, to provide a riveting picture of its politics, its symbolism and the idea in European culture of it as something to be tamed. She situates her findings in her forensic knowledge of the work of writers like Toni Morrison, but also in her own history as both a Yoruba and an Irish woman.

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Ian Maleney creates movement in the Offaly bogs which his family has always called home. Photo: Gareth Smyth

And while Ian Maleney's Minor Monuments, with its reflections on the bog in his native Co Offaly, and his attempts to record its silences, breaks new ground, it is also a beautiful memoir of rural life that fits into a long and noble tradition, rich with reflection on loss, what memory is, and what our relationship is with the place we call home.

A look back at past winners in this category reveals a roll-call of fiction talent: Julia Kelly's With My Lazy Eye in 2008, Belinda McKeon's Solace in 2011, Donal Ryan in 2012 with The Spinning Heart, but last year's discovery, Emilie Pine and Notes to Self, marked the rise of the personal essay, a form which has always been around, but which has been given a new impetus, arguably by technology, allowing people to write in whatever way they like about the things that interest them - and to apply that uniquely modern twist: a deep honesty about the human experience, a willingness to cast off self-consciousness and a bravery that is admirable.

It should also be noted that this category has a habit of winning the overall Book of the Year prize, demonstrating that new writers can really make an impact, even at an early stage in their careers. What they then need is careful nurturing, so that their early talent truly flourishes, something that is to be aspired to, even when the commercial realities of the book business come into play.

The late Toni Morrison once said: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." This might seem to contradict all of the above, but in fact, within it lies the truth of this award: that writers want to communicate something of themselves to the reader, and no two writers will do this in the same way. That is the miracle of writing, in all its forms.

You can vote for your favourite title at anpostirishbookwards.ie. Voting closes on November 13. Four lucky voters selected will each win €100 of National Book Tokens.

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