From classics to meaty trilogies, from memoirs to dazzling new fiction, 15 of our best-loved authors reveal the best books they discovered under Covid
CHRISTINE DWYER HICKEY
The first lockdown was all about novels. New ones included an advance copy of Ed O’Loughlin’s This Eden — a brilliant international cyber-thriller that’s smart, funny and as it turns out, remarkably timely.
In the second lockdown I veered towards biographies/autobiographies. The highlights were two books by Martin Amis, Experience and Inside Story. Amis always has something interesting to say. I particularly liked the sections set in London and his accounts of Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin. Walking with Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne also left a strong impression. Byrne really is a very fine writer and this book, for all its dark corners, often made me laugh out loud.
Recently, I have turned to poetry. I always do while writing a novel, for the compact world each poem creates and the underlying rhythm it leaves in my head. Three collections to savour: Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley; The Painter on his Bike by Enda Wyley and Massacre of the Birds by Mary O’Donnell — all female Irish poets, all at the top of their game.
‘The Narrow Land’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey is published by Atlantic
I recently discovered The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a five-volume history of a well-to-do English family that begins just before World War II. In total, it stretches to about 3,000 pages, so I’m still in the heart of it, but I became hooked from the opening chapter. I’m always a little nervous of novels that list a full dramatis personae at the start, not to mention a family tree, but there are so many characters that it’s proved rather helpful.
Published between 1990 and 2013, the series explores the effect of a changing society on the Cazalets. We watch as parents, siblings, children and cousins move through a world still traumatised by the First World War and preparing to suffer during the Second. There’s a Downtonesque feeling to the first volume. England is still a place where the wealthy live idle, carefree lives and the servants know their place, but how that changes in time.
Howard writes with great fluidity and her characters rise off the page in glorious Technicolour. Halfway though the books as I write this, I feel I’m engaged in one of the great reading experiences of my life.
Apparently, writing the series was suggested to Howard by her son-in-law, Martin Amis. Would it be cheeky to suggest that this might be his greatest contribution to literature? Probably. So I’ll say nothing.
‘The Echo Chamber’ by John Boyne is published by Doubleday
There were three of us in my marriage during lockdown, the third being a long dead Austrian writer who explored the human condition and wove his work with an intensity and urgency I found compelling.
Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 into a wealthy Jewish family. His short stories, novellas and biographies of major historical and literary figures made him a bestseller in the 1920s and 1930s, with his crisp, unfussy prose and enthralling scenarios. He fell out of favour subsequently, dismissed by some as middlebrow.
Zweig’s one completed novel was Beware of Pity, set on the eve of World War I and telling how a minor mistake can lead to a domino effect — with tragic consequences. Another, The Post-Office Girl, left unfinished and published posthumously, deals with poverty between the wars. Wes Anderson based The Grand Budapest Hotel on those two books.
But for my money, Zweig’s novellas are his standout work. Look for Burning Secret or Chess. The former is a coming-of-age piece about a child determined to thwart his mother’s holiday love affair; the latter is about mono-obsession, and makes a rare political statement, with one of the chess players being a survivor of Nazi interrogation.
Poignantly, Zweig fled the Nazis in the 1930s and became a wandering exile, eventually settling in Brazil, where he died by suicide with his wife in 1942. His work is available in translation through Pushkin Press, where you’ll find — to quote one of his characters — someone interested in the “kaleidoscope of life”.
Martina Devlin hosts a regular books podcast, City of Books, supported by the Arts Council, Dublin Unesco City of Literature and the Museum of Literature Ireland
A little bit of extra time to read was pretty much the only positive from the interminable, strangulated months of lockdowns.
It was published in 2018 but I didn’t get to read Now We Can Talk Openly About Men until late last year. Martina Evans’ exposition of Ireland’s bloody transition to independence told through the prism of the experiences of two women: dressmaker Kitty Donovan and stenographer Babe Cronin. Presented as a pair of dramatic monologues, it is a virtuosic piece of art; funny, unflinching, disturbing, unforgettable.
My mother introduced me last summer to Mrs Bridge, the sweetly unworldly titular heroine of Evan S Connell’s 1959 novel. I then discovered that dour, workaholic Mr Bridge was given his own eponymous novel 10 years later and I read that darker sequel in a few hours. Middle-class ennui and social conservatism were never more starkly or humanely observed. Connell’s portrayal of lives and love thwarted by rigid convention is at times tender, at times horrifying, and always brilliant.
I discovered Victorian poet and short-story writer Charlotte Mew somewhere in the fog of the latest lockdown, and fell in love with two of her poems in particular: The Farmer’s Bride and The Changeling.
‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan is published by Doubleday
After a decidedly lacklustre spell of reading (and writing), Raven Leilani’s Luster restored my faith in fiction. I guffawed, I wept, I reassessed my politics, all while cursing her to high heaven for her obscenely gorgeous sentences.
As for non-fiction, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat and Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House taught me that a book can be both profoundly moving and formally radical, inventing wild new possibilities for the life-writing genre.
As well as recent releases, lockdown felt like an opportunity to delve into some back catalogues — I sought out the debut novels of two homegrown heroes, Anne Enright (The Wig My Father Wore) and Colm Tóibín (The South). Both were predictably great, but arguably not their absolute best, so it was good to remind myself that, as a writer, there is always time to grow. I also devoured anything I hadn’t yet read by the inimitable Sarah Hall, only to be rewarded with an advance copy of her forthcoming novel, Burntcoat. Having vowed I would never even consider reading a book set during a pandemic, I can confirm this one is absolutely staggering; brace yourselves.
‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan is published by Atlantic Books
The pandemic Zoom boom of the past year led to many new discoveries for me. A real gem is the UK publisher CB Editions, which published City Works Dept, the superb poetry collection by Stoke painter and decorator Philip Hancock, as well as the idiosyncratic What Were You Thinking? by English poet Julian Stannard and War Reporter by US poet Dan O’Brien — a powerful collaboration with Pulitzer-winning war photographer Paul Watson.
The late Bette Howland was a world-class writer whose books are becoming available in Europe for the first time. Her story collection Blue in Chicago is a perceptive and tightly written portrait of the early 1970s Chicago, and her memoir W-3 about her time in a psychiatric hospital is a funny and humane account of brokenness.
I decided to read all the translated works of Croatian writer Daša Drndić, including Celia Hawkesworth’s translations of the novels Belladonna and EEG, which provide enormous insight into the legacy of war and Nazism in Europe.
I am particularly impressed with contemporary Chinese writing, still strangely overlooked: particular highlights are Distant Sunflower Fields by Li Juan (translated by Christopher Payne) and Shadow of the Hunter by Su Tong (translated by James Trapp).
‘Panenka’ by Rónán Hession is published by Bluemoose Books
During lockdown I was determined to read all those classics on my shelves that never seemed to find a spot on the to-be-read pile between all the “work” reading an author must get through. I started with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A perfect pandemic read it is, too, taking place as it does in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.
Our hero, the excitable, self-obsessed and frequently silly Hans Castorp, pays a visit to his consumptive cousin Joachim who is seeking a cure in the International Sanatorium Berghof, though it’s obvious to anyone who casts an eye over him that Hans has got a bit of a dose himself. He ends up staying for seven years, but with his fellow patients representing aspects of early 20th-century European society, politics and philosophy, he’s got plenty to keep him engaged: all human life is here, it seems.
In fact, all year I’ve been marvelling at a lot of the petty or deluded or wretched (but always recognisable) protagonists of classic literature, from Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (Notes from Underground), to James Baldwin’s fearful, cruel David (Giovanni’s Room), to poor, hopeless Sasha from Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.
‘The Rules of Revelation’ by Lisa McInerney is published by John Murray
After a decade or so of immersion in non-fiction, the pandemic brought me back to reading fiction and to the pure joy of poetry. Jenny Mitchell’s collection Map of a Plantation was a heartbreaking discovery, while Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire and Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe’s Auguries of a Minor God both were enhanced by Zoom readings that were mesmerising. But my favourite pandemic poet has to be Steve Denehan, whose poems in Days of Falling Flesh and Rising Moons have made me catch my breath, laugh out loud and smile through tears.
Three books stood out for me. Marianne Lee’s debut A Quiet Tide combined all my passions — hidden history, an unsung heroine and west Cork — in one memorable book. Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul was an extraordinary story about very ordinary people and Damian Barr’s You Will be Safe Here left me shocked and raging.
I reread Martin Malone’s The Broken Cedar — brutal and brilliant, it should be on every Irish reader’s list. I turned once again to Amitav Ghosh’s expansive The Ibis Trilogy to understand, through scholarly yet utterly enjoyable fiction, the true extent of the shameful legacy of the British Empire’s economic rape and pillage of its colonies.
‘The Tainted’ by Cauvery Madhavan is published by HopeRoad
In the course of the George Floyd protests last year — when some of the streets of New York were smashed and barricaded and burning — I was asked by a friend what I thought about the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. I knew there was a copy somewhere deep in my bookshelves, and when I found it again, I became completely absorbed not only in the idea of things falling apart, but how it might come back together too.
The book is considered one of first great African novels written in English. The title comes from Yeats’s poem The Second Coming. When it appeared in 1959, it was a revelation. Literature had been such a one-curtained, one-sided conversation for so many years that here was Achebe, opening up the windows of his culture and making of that space an everywhere. In the course of this he helped all of us in the so-called “rest of the world” (Korea, Mexico, Jamaica and, yes, even Ireland) to change our voices.
Achebe himself once said: “If you don’t like somebody’s story, tell your own.”
Even today, 60-plus years on, Things Fall Apart resists the temptation to become part of the structure. It helps us identify with situations far from our own. It does not want to meld in with the ambient noise. It is a complicated, beautiful work of art. A radical social novel. It proposes questions, not answers. And it is, therefore, a literature of protest.
To me, the book was even better second time around. I carried Things Fall Apart around with me during some of those summer months. It reminded me — even in the worst of times — that literature has a job to do. Why are things falling apart? And is it possible that things can come together too?
‘Apeirogon’ by Colum McCann is published by Bloomsbury
I’m not sure what it says about me that my go-to comfort read was a regularly violent German gumshoe series, but in spring 2020 I sat on the doorstep in the sun, re-reading Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. March Violets and The Pale Criminal are set in the 1930s; A German Requiem takes place just after the Nazis have lost the war. Hard-boiled detective Bernie Gunther is charismatic and morally ambiguous, and Kerr uses him to examine the impact of evil on good people, and how circumstances force allegiances to shift. Kerr said he always painted Gunther into a corner, “so that he can’t cross the floor without getting paint on his shoes”.
There were worse places to spend the winter than in World War II, I decided, as the second lockdown began to bite. A friend recommended another trilogy: Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. I was transported to Romania and then Greece as the German army advanced. The Balkan Trilogy is a portrait of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage; their relationship a small parade taking place on a vast, chaotic promenade. “The great fortune is life,” Harriet tells Guy. “We must preserve it.”
‘A Talented Man’ by Henrietta McKervey is published by Hachette
Many of us spent much of the pandemic in isolation and it’s easy to start talking to oneself just to hear a voice. But I spent this pandemic having James Joyce talk to me. Ulysses can hardly be called a new release and as I have adapted it for the stage, I cannot call it a new discovery for me. But it’s constantly capable of revealing tiny comic discoveries when re-encountered.
Rather than re-read it during the pandemic, I let the words wash around me at home, thanks to RTÉ’s superb dramatisation by great actors — many now gone — who brilliantly acted out the entire text in a 1982 radio production, lasting nearly 30 hours and free to enjoy on the RTÉ website. Words that seem complex on the page sparkle into life when listened to. And it beat listening to news bulletins.
The finest and most underrated debut I read in lockdown was Marianne Lee’s deftly written novel A Quiet Tide, an exemplary act of reclamation and literary ventriloquism, describing the botanist Ellen Hutchins, trapped by family circumstance in 19th-century Bantry. I loved how it found the exact tone to match the woman whose hidden life it reclaimed. Lee is a writer of substance, declining the embellishments of linguistic pyrotechnics, letting her tale unfold at its own pace. She conjured a heroine no reader will forget. Finally, Paula Meehan’s As if by Magic: Selected Poems, left me wonderstruck.
‘Secrets Never Told’ by Dermot Bolger is published by New Island Books
The pandemic led me to books about nature; after so long reading and writing about tech, grounding myself in the world around me felt like a rebellion, and the fundamental alienness and beauty of the non-human world has been of enormous comfort to me over the last year.
I started with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the psychedelic eco-horror novels that Alex Garland’s extraordinary film Annihilation was based on. The first book follows an anonymous biologist sent to ‘Area X’, home to eerie anomalies of nature. A kind of wayward evolution takes root in this place, collapsing distinctions between plants and animals and even people. The trilogy is plot-driven and extremely readable, but it also directly challenges how we think about the world around us, and ourselves.
Another book I found inspiring and comforting in the early days of the pandemic was Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which can be described very loosely as an essay on attention, technology and life. Odell makes a case for “resisting the attention economy” and cultivating awareness of one’s surroundings. Her insistence that we should know the names of local trees led me to download an app called Pl@ntNet, which can identify plants and trees instantly with pictures, and which made my lockdown walks a lot more interesting.
Finally, I recently read Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, the most vivid, beautiful and philosophically engaging book about fungi that you could ever hope to read. Whether or not you’ve given much thought to mushrooms and mycorrhizal networks before, I can’t recommend this book enough; each page contains some mind-blowing truth, some hint of cosmic importance and interconnectedness in an overlooked lichen or root.
‘The Disconnect’ by Roisin Kiberd is published by Serpent’s Tail
The pandemic happened to coincide with my daughter’s second year of life, so I spent quite a few lockdown evenings lying in the dark beside her cot keeping her company while she learned to fall asleep (something she has still, incidentally, not learned to do). Under these conditions I was compelled to betray my pro-print principles and buy a Kindle, on which I have since read all sorts of books that I wouldn’t necessarily have bothered with otherwise.
Among these is a 1972 dystopian science fiction novel called The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner, which I read in June last year. Done in a kind of semi-documentary collage style, it is about the total collapse of the planetary ecosystem, brought about by an endless tide of industrial poisons. There are no heroes. Everyone in the book is sick. Almost everyone dies. A green revolution goes nowhere. In the end, America literally burns. It’s crude, vivid, insanely pessimistic: very 70s. Perhaps because of my grim first-lockdown mood, I found it extremely satisfying, and recommend it to anyone who wants to take a brief holiday from feeling optimistic about the future.
‘White City’ by Kevin Power is published by Scribner
I loved A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. A beautiful meditation and excavation of the poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and her magnificent poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Ní Ghríofa weaves in her own life and trajectory as she traces the scant details of who Ní Chonaill was, all the time referring back to the poem. My mother used recite this poem to us as children so it also brought back huge memories.
I had resisted The Islandman by Tomas O’ Crohan for years. I blame Peig Sayers and all those terrible Irish classes the nation’s teenagers were subjected to back in the day. But The Islandman is a revelation. The life on Blasket, the struggle on sea and land, the buying and selling of pigs, the hunting of seals, the hurley matches on the beach with the whole island out. O’Crohan’s voice is as soothing and mellifluous as the sea itself, the old voice in the old true style, telling us of the way it was. My husband and I both read this as did our eldest son and went camping for a night among the ruins of Blasket. A magical place, the seals on the beach all night calling to one another. It was nearly the Aegean.
Beckett is a constant for me so I pounced on Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair. This memoir is an odd, not very reverent insight into the man himself and Bair has a few scores to settle — but then don’t we all? I enjoyed the gossip and the refreshing approach.
Bair found the Irish literati of the day hard to take as a young American academic. But what comes across strongly is Beckett’s courtesy and old-world decency. The book, also fascinating in detailing Bair’s time spent with Simone De Beauvoir, is an excellent companion piece to her earlier standalone biographies on these two subjects. Beckett, me thinks, would not be pleased.
Marina Carr is a playwright whose most recent production was an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’
Delving into the past, I came across the trappist monk Thomas Merton and his autobiographical work The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton lived a wild life before eventually finding god and entering a monastery in Kentucky, and the book details that journey. For anyone looking inward in these strange times, this memoir is worthy of examination.
I recently picked up Erling Kagge’s book Silence, this tiny but powerful book is a reminder that we all need silence and space in our lives. The work also details over the course of its short read the author’s solo crossing of the Antarctic without a radio (something he did by choice). It’s a terrific book from a renaissance man par excellence.
I’ve been in a bit of a Bill Bryson frenzy of late and read his latest book, The Body, a fascinating story of the human body, full of his usual humour and packed with facts and stories. An engaging read to wake you up to the power of the greatest vehicle we will ever know.
‘The Running Book’ by John Connell is published by Picador