Friday 23 February 2018

Celebration of triumph of promise

Nominees for the Newcomer of the Year award are expected to go on to even greater things, says Alison Walsh

Alison Walsh

The great novelist Toni Morrison said of her first work, The Bluest Eye: "I wrote my first novel, because I wanted to read it." Many writers would recognise that urgency, that desire, to tell a story at all costs. The Sunday Independent Best Newcomer of the Year celebrates this impulse, and the specialness of that first published work.

Of course, the lucky few writers on this list -- Siobhan McKenna, Sarah Harte, Belinda McKeon, John Butler, Orla Tinsley and Des Bishop -- will be the envy of every published, and unpublished, new author. Hopefully, the award will boost their sales, reminding the reading public of just why these books are special. But the Newcomer Award also carries with it a particular responsibility, the hope that each promising writer will develop into something more, that some years down the track, they'll have several works under their belts and the awards to match.

It's a tough market at the moment, and many debut authors will struggle to make an impact. It's a market that prefers sure-fire winners, proven authors with long track records, or writers who can spring, fully formed onto the world stage, global blockbusters with rights sold in many countries. The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year Award celebrates exactly the opposite, the triumph of promise.

Siobhan McKenna's The Lingerie Designer is described by her publisher, Poolbeg, as The Devil Wears Prada meets Eat, Pray, Love. Now, while publishers are always making grand claims for their authors, it's certainly true that McKenna's struggles in business, her new career in stress management as well as her love of clothes, thanks to a career in the rag trade, have come together in this racy novel of escape, as Helen Devine goes to Vietnam to try to uncover what really matters in life. There are several fresh twists and McKenna displays a willingness to tackle darker themes, such as adoption, sexual harassment, parental absence, all leavened with a certain spicy humour.

It's particularly interesting to see an honest-to-goodness "women's" read on the list: of all the genres feeling the impact of the recession, popular women's fiction has arguably been the hardest hit. Some would say that this is no surprise -- after all, women no longer want to read about champagne and Mr Right when they can't pay the mortgage, but there's something else afoot. It seems that writers and readers are more willing to embrace the idea that women have complex lives and that they want to write about them, to deal with grittier issues, but with the same humour and honesty.

Sarah Harte's The Better Half (Penguin Ireland) is an excellent example of this new trend. Her fresh, darkly humourous take on the fallout of the Celtic Tiger boom really got readers talking this year, not just because it offered us a bird's-eye view of a world so few of us know anything about -- and managed to make sympathetic characters out of developers into the bargain -- but because of the bracing honesty and raw humour of her portrait of a woman on the edge.

Among all the other -- expected -- bestsellers this year, it was truly heartening to see a literary novel, by a newcomer, in the bestseller lists: Belinda McKeon's Solace (Picador). With many proclaiming that literary fiction is "dead", due to the inexorable rise of mid-market bookclub fiction among other factors, McKeon's arrival onto the scene gives the lie to that and, what's more she has written a truly "Irish" story in the best sense of the word. Ursula K Le Guin, reviewing the novel, was puzzled by what she saw as "an austere decorum infusing much modern Irish fiction, a studied levelness of tone". But so much of the power of Irish writing is about what isn't said, and McKeon understands that. In Solace, quiet utterances carry with them the undercurrent of something else, something unnamed but unspeakable.

While many have seen touches of John McGahern in McKeon's novel -- and which novice doesn't echo a master? -- it's telling that what McKeon has been allowed to do, which so few writers are these days, is publish a "promising" novel, to be followed, in time, by a confident and mature book.

Both she and columnist/ filmmaker John Butler, author of The Tenderloin, share the same publisher in Picador, under the enthusiastic stewardship of publisher Paul Baggaley. Butler's novel, in which callow Dubliner Evan tries to navigate his way to adulthood in San Francisco during the dotcom boom, is a coming-of-age story, sure, but again, there's that twist, that fresh perspective that breathes new life into an "old" story. Evan's struggles to maturity have a wince-inducing familiarity which will strike a chord with many, as will the author's needle-sharp portrayal of the gulf between past and present, both in San Francisco, that ultimate hippy city that produced so many dotcom crusaders and in Ireland, on the cusp of huge social and economic change.

There are two non-fiction books in the newcomer category, and while it's always hard to assess whether writers who have been compelled to write on a particular subject will necessarily do so further down the line, the two books here more than earn their place on the shortlist. There's a gutsy honesty to both, as two very different writers get to grips with the realities of serious illness and mortality.

According to Eilish O'Regan, health correspondent of the Independent, Orla Tinsley could have settled for a comfortable run through her extraordinary life as a cystic fibrosis campaigner in her memoir, Salty Baby. Instead, she chose something less easy and altogether more revelatory. In this vivid account of her life to date, Tinsley talks about the realities of growing up with CF, about how being "a very special little girl" was at once a privilege and a burden. Tinsley recognises the duality of being deprived and spoilt that others with disabilities and their families will understand.

There's also a reluctance to paint herself as a saint, which will endear her to readers, and there are insights which will see them pause: "I thought that, maybe, if I could be the best at what I wanted in life, then I would somehow get out of CF, that achieving my dreams would be my ticket out of illness. Even though I knew it was incurable, I think somewhere inside I thought that some time it would just disappear and leave me free."

Of course, fans of Des Bishop will be familiar with his sell-out show on the subject of his father, on which his book, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond

(Penguin Ireland), is based. A loving account of his dad, who had suffered so much in his childhood at the hands of his mentally ill mother, it's a chastening reminder of subjects so little discussed at the time, and a homage to Bishop's garrulous, dramatic family. The author isn't afraid to detail his own struggles as a lonely teenager, sent to boarding school in Ireland, but also writes movingly of how subtly, slowly, he became a parent to his own parents. It could have been mawkish, but it's all recounted in that sharp New Yorkese, that staccato that couldn't be Irish and yet is, somehow. Bishop's is a real "voice", instantly recognisable, brutally honest, funny and touching in equal


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