Tuesday 20 February 2018

Fifty reasons to remember the Tiger

The Bord Gais awards celebrate the joy of reading and an unforgettable decade for Irish authors, says Alison Walsh

Alison Walsh

When I was asked to join the judging panel of the Bord Gais Energy Book of the Decade, I approached the task with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. There would be rows, pistols at dawn. It would be a literary bloodbath.

Instead, a group of perfectly reasonable people, passionate about books and reading, engaged in lively, but civilised discussion, sharing their opinions on which books might be included on a list of the 50 best books of the Noughties. Even though the discussions were sometimes forthright, not a blow was exchanged. I was faintly disappointed.

That's not to say that we didn't passionately defend our own selections, made from the large number of publishers' submissions, but we quickly agreed that for a book to merit inclusion, we didn't have to like it necessarily -- just because a book might not be to our taste, didn't mean that it didn't have something unique and special to say, or that we didn't recognise that it had spoken to people in some way.

Also, and most importantly, we had to agree that in order for a book to be a book of the decade, rather than, say, the season, or the year, it had to have a special quality, something indefinable, that made it a book that readers would still remember in another 10 years. But we gradually realised as we sifted through this varied and enriching list, we were also remembering the story of the Noughties, that unforgettable decade in our history.

To many, Bill Cullen epitomises the chutzpah of the Celtic Tiger years, but who could forget the success of It's a Long Way from Penny Apples. And who, reading it, wouldn't admire the sheer grit of this self-made man and the country which made him the success he is? David McWilliams' The Pope's Children will forever be synonymous with the era that defined it, and remembered for its pitch-perfect satirising of the people we'd become. Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's fortunes rose and fell and rose again, as people laughed along with the original Celtic Tiger cub in Should have Got Off at Sydney Parade. Roy Keane's departure from Saipan divided the country, inspiring countless songs, comedy sketches and a blockbuster play. Keane, his story, captured the nation's imagination and reached out to an audience far beyond the devoted book-buying public. Paul McGrath's Back from the Brink also reached beyond football to tell the searing tale of a man's struggles with his demons.

The Noughties were also notable for the surge into our consciousness of Irish women writers who revolutionised the tired sex 'n' shopping genres, the glitzy yarns which had held sway for the Eighties, and made way for softer, more human, heartwarming stories about real lives. The doyenne of the genre, Maeve Binchy, here nominated for her novel Heart and Soul, paved the way for Marian Keyes, whose This Charming Man, in which domestic violence hides beneath a charming veneer, is perhaps her finest novel to date. In Lessons in Heartbreak, Cathy Kelly continued the tradition of stories about real women's lives, in which children aren't perfect and husbands stray, and people lose love and find it all over again, as did Patricia Scanlan in Forgive and Forget and Sheila O'Flanagan in Yours Faithfully.

Arguably, these women are as significant to the story of Ireland as their literary forebears, but, it is in the literary field that Irish writers have demonstrated an extraordinary range and quality, while probing some of the nation's old -- and new -- preoccupations.

Writers like Sebastian Barry have examined Ireland's uncomfortable past with a lyricism and beauty that earned him not one, but two nominations, for A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture. Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea recalled the savagery of the Famine at a time of plenty. Des Ekin's fascinating tale of kidnap and slavery, The Stolen Village, reminded us of a little known, but vividly colourful part of our history. Colm Toibin, in possibly the most adored book of last year, Brooklyn, reminded us of the constrained choices of the recent past -- he is also a deserved nominee, for his peerless The Master, the story of Henry James and the battle between heart and mind. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, the first Irish winner of a National Book Award in the US, and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, reminded us just how far the Irish have travelled and of the dark shadow of 9/11. In Ronan Bennett's capable hands, England in the 1630s becomes an allegory of our modern age in Havoc in Its Third Year.

Other Irish writers held a mirror up to the more recent difficulties of the nation. Never afraid to provoke debate, Edna O'Brien bravely delved into the dark heart of the Irish rural experience in In the Forest, Roddy Doyle turned his raw, uncompromising gift to the story of Paula Spencer and made a hero out of an "ordinary" Irish woman in Paula Spencer. Hugo Hamilton told an unforgettable story of identity, family and nationalism in his memoir The Speckled People.

Others weren't afraid to unsettle or disturb: in Patrick McCabe's Winterwood a man kills his daughter and then dutifully visits her grave in a savagely beautiful tale of the darkness within all of us and Christine Dwyer Hickey vividly and often hilariously, brought to life the damage wrought by alcohol in Tatty.

A newer generation of writers have arguably moved beyond the "old questions" which so gripped us as a nation, and moved onto new territory, the solitude of modernity, the difficulties of creative life. A writer who has been producing subtle, unshowy, but simply perfect studies of the human character is Deirdre Madden, and the success of Molly Fox's Birthday brought her to a new generation of readers. Newer voices such as Kevin Barry, in his debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms, Julia Kelly's vivid debut With My Lazy Eye, Claire Kilroy's poetic Tenderwire and Claire Keegan in Walk the Blue Fields, reminded us that there is plenty yet to come.

Of course, this newer generation of writers owes its success to the masters of the past. To John McGahern, whose That They May Face the Rising Sun and Memoir reminded us of the savage pull of rural life and the quiet dramas that unfold; to a living master, William Trevor, who amazes still with his precise power in The Story of Lucy Gault, in which a dark twist unsettles and astounds. To Jennifer Johnston, celebrating her 80th birthday this year and as productive and engaging a writer as ever in Foolish Mortals. And of course, to Seamus Heaney, whose engaging, subtle reflections on his creative life are celebrated in Denis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones.

In spite of our fixation with house prices and patio furniture, the Noughties were a glorious decade for Irish writers. John Banville proved himself a worthy winner of the 2005 Booker Prize with his heartwrenching story of grief The Sea and Anne Enright triumphed in 2007 with The Gathering, a celebration of the destructive and redemptive power of the Irish family. And the Noughties was also the decade in which Irish writers began to burst forth in new and exciting genres. The master of crime writing, John Connolly, celebrated here for his novel, The Lovers, has been proclaimed as a "visionary" writer, and has paved the way for new and exciting voices such as Tana French in her startling debut, In the Woods.

In children's fiction, too, the artistry and imagination behind Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl astonished ("The best book I've ever read," as my own 12-year-old put it). Likewise the vivid and hilarious skill that went into Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant, or the astonishing depth of the late Siobhan Dowd's Bog Child and Kate Thompson's The New Policeman, which reminded us that children's fiction can be challenging and entertaining in equal measure. Of course, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a children's book, but it also accomplished that rare feat of reaching out, to adults, book groups, bus drivers, politicians, to everyone.

If all this sound hugely self-congratulatory, well, why not? We can say, when we look at this list, that this is Ireland, from the lyrical beauty of Sebastian Barry to the modern-day fairy tales of Cecelia Ahern in PS I Love You. From the difficult birth of the State in Diarmaid Ferriter's Judging Dev, to the Troubles, in David Park's The Truth Commissioner, proclaimed by many as the most important book about that bitter era, ably supported by Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA. From the pastoral joys of Alice Taylor's The Parish and the wondrous beauty of Tim Robinson's Connemara: Listening to the Wind, to the seat-of-the-pants daring of the men who defined the Celtic Tiger era in Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan's The Builders.

The Bord Gais Energy Book of the Decade comes at a very good time. It reminds us of what we are good at as a country. When we are chastened by our failures, we can look at these 50 books and revel in the achievements of our writers. We can celebrate the successes of those we might have forgotten in flashier days and we can rediscover the quiet, simple pleasures of a book. As judges, we all had our personal favourites, of course, the books that gave us huge pleasure, those surprised or moved us. But that doesn't matter. The choice is yours now.

Vote for the winner online at www.bookofthedecade.ie

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