Thursday 23 January 2020

FICTION: John Boland picks his novels of the year for your festive presents

John Boland

Of all the novels published in the past 12 months, none was more impressive than Neil Jordan's Mistaken (John Murray), his fifth full-length work of fiction.

It was a busy year for Jordan, whose other main achievement was his first television drama, The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons and screened to much fanfare on Sky Atlantic in the summer. But it's doubtful if anything gave him more pleasure than the esteem which greeted Mistaken and its winning of two major prizes -- the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award in June and the main prize in the recent Irish Book Awards.

These honours were richly deserved for a novel whose engrossing story of two Dublin boys fated to resemble each other becomes a haunting meditation on the meaning of identity. The book's third character is Dublin itself and Jordan provides the most detailed and loving evocation of Ireland's capital since Joyce.

Some major novelists, both Irish and international, didn't publish any novels in the past year. There was nothing new from Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel or Martin Amis, while on the home front William Trevor, John Banville, Joseph O'Connor, Patrick McCabe and Colm Tóibín were similarly unforthcoming with full-length fiction, though Tóibín's The Empty Family was a very fine short-story collection.

But there were outstanding novels from other writers, both Irish and from beyond our shores. Here are details of some of the best:


Sebastian Barry (Faber)

The much-honoured Irish writer delves yet again into the lives of obscure family antecedents. In this novel, he details the life of Lilly, who in the time of the Black and Tans flees from Dublin to Chicago with her young lover but finds that republican vengeance knows no borders or mercy.

The book, recounted by Lilly in old age, is a meditation on loss, survival, and endurance, and is written with Barry's customary elegance and understated poignancy.


Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape)

This eagerly awaited first novel by a short-story writer of startling originality is set in a fictional west of Ireland city sometime in the future and concerns, among other things, a turf war fought out by rival gangs. The phantasmagorical milieu is evoked with astonishing vividness and the linguistic gusto breathes life into characters who are drawn with cartoonish relish.


Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)

The Irish writer's first novel since her 2007 Man Booker-winner, The Gathering, concerns an adulterous affair and its repercussions as the Celtic Tiger rots into the recession. Sardonic humour and mordant insights inform this cautionary, though not unsympathetic, story of passion and the chaos it can create.


Edna O'Brien (Faber)

The octogenarian author may not have lived here for many decades, but the close and constant eye she keeps on the country of her birth and upbringing informs many of the stories in this new collection.


Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic Books)

This novel chronicles the life of an ordinary Dublin man in extraordinary fashion -- beginning at its end and culminating at its start. What could have been merely tricksy is rendered very moving through the author's skill and empathy.


Carlo Gebler (New Island)

This fictional re-imagining of a real 1940 murder outlines the story of Moll McCarthy, who was shot dead in a field near the Tipperary cottage in which she and her children lived. A neighbour was arrested and hanged for the killing, but Gebler persuasively suggests that the real perpetrator was a political opportunist who had more sinister reasons for murdering her. Gebler's narrative expertise is such that you read the book with a sense of mounting dread.


Belinda McKeon (Picador)

A winner at last month's Irish book awards, this impressive first novel by Longford-born, Brooklyn-based McKeon tackles calamity, bereavement, loss, family ties, and relationships, in contemporary Ireland. The story is told coolly and obliquely but there's a powerful rawness at its heart.


Ed O'Loughlin (Quercus)

Following the promise of his first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, which concerned foreign correspondents in Africa, O'Loughlin's follow-up is a darkly comic satire on contemporary imperialism. Set in an unnamed middle-eastern country, its fast and furious tale involves warmongers, victims, careerists, a washing machine, and an exploding donkey.


William Ryan (Mantle)

The Limerick-born, London-based author's second crime novel featuring Moscow detective Alexei Korolev is a fine successor to last year's The Holy Thief. The new thriller finds the decent, cautious, Korolev investigating an apparent suicide at a film location in the Ukraine of the 1930s, but in a Soviet Union marked by purges and paranoia, all is not as it seems. Ryan handles his plot and characters in an admirably unfussy and engrossing manner.


Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)

Although passed over by the Man Booker judges, Hollinghurst's long-awaited new novel has been praised by its admirers as a state-of-England masterpiece deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as EM Forster's Howards End.

It's not quite that good and it's too focused on gay concerns to be properly inclusive, but it's an extraordinarily assured piece of extended storytelling, spanning several generations.


Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)

This year's Man Booker winner is slim in length (less than 170 pages) but substantial in impact. By means of an ageing, unreliable narrator, Barnes meditates on memory, loneliness, regret, and other timeless concerns.THE WINE OF SOLITUDE

Irene Nemirovsky (Chatto & Windus)

This translation from the 1935 French original is further proof that the Russian-born author, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 and was forgotten until Suite Francaise was discovered among her papers in 2004, was one of the finest novelists of the last century.

Here, she directly addresses her Jewish background in a story of a young girl's troubled relationship with her cold, feckless mother and her mother's lover during the Great War and the Russian revolution.


Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

A contemporary and very original take on the man-who-came-to-dinner scenario. In Smith's version, a party guest locks himself in the spare room and, politely but resolutely, refuses to leave. That, though, is just the bare outline of a book that's brimming over with linguistic invention, psychological wit and profound themes lightly addressed.


Jeffrey Eugenides (Harper Collins)

This latest novel by the author of The Virgin Suicides casts a sceptical eye on modern relationships as American graduate student Madeleine finds herself having to choose between two suitors in the manner of a Regency heroine. Eugenides has a good deal of dry fun with the notion of modern versus courtly love, but his cool approach also allows for a degree of feeling.


Edward St Aubyn (Picador)

The author announced that this was to be the final instalment of his elegantly discomfiting series featuring the troublesome, dysfunctional Patrick Melrose and his ghastly upper-class family.

Here, a funeral provides the occasion for him to muse on his cold, self-absorbed mother and the sexually abusive father who scarred him for life. The book's miracle is that it manages to be almost as funny as it is painful.


Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

This novel uses various styles and voices to tackle such themes as new technologies and old music. The goon squad of the title denotes the passing of time, and Egan reveals how it affects a group of people who grew up in the 1970s rock industry. One of the year's most admired American novels, it makes for challenging rather than easy reading.

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