Monday 23 September 2019

Books: Adventures undreamt of by the 'Country Girls'

The all-female shortlist for Newcomer of The Year at the BGE Irish Book Awards runs the gamut from love and loyalty to violence and rage

Author Sarah Bannan
Author Sarah Bannan
Writer Sara Baume

Alison Walsh

It is more than 40 years since the doyenne of Irish letters, Edna O'Brien, scandalised the country with the publication of The Country Girls, her groundbreaking novel about women's lives and loves in 1950s Ireland.

What the locals would have made of the all-female shortlist in this year's Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year category at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards is anybody's guess. The shortlist - Dinosaurs on Other Planets, by Danielle McLaughlin, The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Weightless by Sarah Bannan, Hopscotch by Hilary Fannin, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither by Sara Baume and Eggshells by Caitriona Lally - is distinguished by the modernity of its themes and interests, and by the sense that these authors can go on adventures undreamt of by previous generations of women writers.

There are male characters in these works, big, bold male characters who kill for a living, or who worry about their families, or who bond with friendless Jack Russells; there are drug takers, prostitutes, dreamers and dropouts; there are anxious teenagers, misfits and loners. And even when they tackle traditional 'female' subjects, such as the family, these writers give it a fresh twist, a jolt that makes modern readers sit up and take note. The families in these books are fractured, marked by fault lines of distrust and misunderstanding.

In the opening story in McLaughlin's short story collection, the ancient Chinese tradition of footbinding brings a woman face to face with her shortcomings as a wife and mother. In The Glorious Heresies, a mother-son relationship is given a fresh twist when gangster Jimmy has to clean up after his mother murders someone. In Sara Baume's Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, a dog with one eye and a maggoty nose becomes a beloved child for a man who was never truly a child himself - who never felt love.

In Eggshells, Vivian's family roll their eyes to heaven at her child-in-a-woman's-body antics - climbing trees and looking for a friend called Penelope. Only in Sarah Bannan's Weightless is the family shadowy, marked by a 'where were the parents?' absence as the closed world of the teenager becomes a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Baba and Cait, O'Brien's heroines, with their dreams of escape from small-town Ireland, might have wondered at the 21st century world revealed by this shortlist: marked by larger possibilities but greater dangers than previous generations could have imagined. In Weightless, beautiful, shiny Carolyn becomes a lightning rod for teenage envy when she moves to a small Alabama town; a Greek chorus of disgruntled local girls follows her every move as jealousy takes on a new and horrible twist in the internet age.

The isolation of the modern family in McLaughlin's story Along the Heron-Studded River, in their commuter home, far from the ties that would have bound their parents, is palpable, the loneliness stark. But the 21st century offers a strange kind of liberation, a haven for people like Vivian, in Eggshells, a changeling who wonders about pigeon bullying and dresses in combat fatigues to show the social welfare officer that she's serious about finding a job. Even the nameless hero of Sara Baume's Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, can wander, undiscovered along the back roads of the country, untethered by ties to his community or family.

Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies, with its fearless depiction of life on the edge, was described by Joseph O'Connor as "set in a place very far from the conveniently out-of-focus watercolour Ireland that readers and writers of my own age grew up with, a land rich in sheep and epiphanies."

Only Hilary Fannin's delicately etched memoir of childhood reminds us of the Ireland that used to be, that watercolour place, where people had to make their peace with things that made them unhappy.

There are no sheep or epiphanies in this shortlist, but there is love and loyalty, violence, rage, a road journey, a love letter to the nooks and crannies of north Dublin city, to the soupy climate of an American town, to the rhythm of the seasons and the crash of the waves on the beach, to the new builds and solid red brick of middle-class Ireland.

Joseph O'Connor is right, Ireland is in technicolour now, and the novels on this shortlist capture that energy and vibrancy with freshness and vigour.

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