Great novels for Christmas
John Boland on the memorable fiction – mostly Irish – published this year
There were no new novels in 2013 by John Banville, Anne Enright, Joseph O'Connor, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor or a number of other big Irish names, but there was lots of very fine Irish fiction all the same, especially from writers new to the reading public, and if you haven't already made their acquaintance, this is a good time of the year in which to do so.
On the international scene, there was also a dearth of novels from some major writers, but there were good offerings from newcomers and from writers who hadn't been heard of for some years – such as Donna Tartt, who takes about a decade to complete a new book: the much-acclaimed and bestselling The Secret History in 1992, The Little Friend in 2002 and now, 11 years later, The Goldfinch.
But if it's Irish fiction that dominates this list, that's because it was arrestingly good.
THE THING ABOUT DECEMBER
By Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland/Lilliput Press)
Donal Ryan's follow-up to The Spinning Heart was actually written before that superb novel, which recently won the Guardian First Book Award. It's just as arresting, too, in its beady-eyed focus on contemporary rural Ireland. However, in place of the recessionary fallout documented in The Spinning Heart, the author here depicts the dying days of a Celtic Tiger country that's just as unforgiving to those who are unable (and unwilling) to play along with its madness. Orphaned main character Johnsey is just such a doomed outsider, his trials throughout 12 fateful months becoming increasingly bleak, though there's much saving black humour in this outstanding novel, too.
By Ciaran Collins (Bloomsbury)
To confirm that living in modern Ireland is no joke, first-time novelist Collins presents us with young narrator Charlie, who's not quite the full shilling and has to fend with malevolent townfolk intent on turning the book's central romance into a tragedy.
Yet it's Charlie's sardonic wit that rescues the proceedings from being depressingly downbeat – not least his exuberantly rude riffs on a variety of concerns, ranging from caustic comments on Ireland's distressful history to cheeky asides about Shane MacGowan and Leitrim anthems. The book has echoes of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, but it's very much its own man.
A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING
By Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar)
Like The Spinning Heart, this was turned down by scores of publishers before being taken up by an adventurous small press. Readers should be grateful for Galley Beggar's courage because this is an astonishing one-off: a linguistically challenging howl of loss, regret and rage by a sexually self-destructive girl in rural Ireland.
The book is relentlessly dark, though not unbearably so, and that's mainly because of McBride's exhilarating command of language, her pell-mell and often fractured prose perfectly conveying the anguish and anger of her central character. It recently won the Goldsmiths prize for innovative fiction, and deservedly so.
By Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)
A feelgood alternative to the current downbeat mood in Irish fiction, this intercuts stories of real-life figures (slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, aviators Alcock and Brown and peace negotiator George Mitchell) with fictionally created characters of humbler ambitions but equal importance for humanity.
Once again, McCann is letting the great world spin in a multi-story novel which assures us that none of us is really alone and that everything has a meaning if only we can tease it out. Expertly assembled and with a fine feeling for its women characters.
RED SKY IN MORNING
By Paul Lynch (Quercus)
The luxuriant language of this debut novel makes its presence felt, though the story it tells is in the nature of a thriller, as impoverished hero Coll flees the Donegal of the 1830s after killing a landowner's son and is pursued across the Atlantic by a vengeful and frightening nemesis. There are echoes here of Roddy Doyle's The Last Roundup and Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side, but the story is told with considerable aplomb.
THE EFFECT OF HER
By Gerard Stembridge (Old Street Publishing)
Following on from his depiction of 1960s Ireland in his 2011 novel, Unspoken, Stembridge here takes many of the same characters into the 1970s. The book is crammed with musical, literary, cinematic and television references to the era, and the author has fun with historical characters, too, not least Charles Haughey and Terry Keane, but its real impact lies with its fictional characters, about whom you find yourself caring a lot.
By Michele Forbes (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
This first novel by an Irish actress is set in her native Belfast and concerns Katherine, whom we first meet as a devoted mother in 1969 and then, in alternating chapters, as a single young woman 20 years earlier.
There's tragedy here, but of a quiet kind – Forbes is especially adept at conveying emotions that lie behind the seemingly humdrum days of ordinary lives.
The book arrived garlanded with praise from John Banville, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle, and when you finish it you'll understand their enthusiasm.
By Roddy Doyle (Jonathan Cape)
Twenty-five years after The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte Jnr is now a middle-aged father of four children and is getting treatment for cancer. He's still in the music business, though now promoting ageing local bands that never really made it. He also embarks on an affair with Imelda, who used to front his own band. Doyle's ear for dialogue is as acute as ever and there's a lot of amusing asides about contemporary life in this revisiting of much-loved characters.
THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT
By William Ryan (Mantle)
The third of Ryan's thrillers yet again features Moscow police detective Alexei Korolev as he attempts both to solve mysteries and to stay out of official trouble during Stalin's reign of terror in the 1930s. The flawed Korolev is an immensely engaging creation: a decent man who's wary of his shadowy superiors and fearful of the Communist regime but intent also on doing the right thing.
The plot, as in the earlier books, is very satisfying, the characters are absorbing, and the period is expertly and unfussily evoked. Outstanding.
By Eleanor Catton
It's almost 1,000 pages long and it's set in New Zealand in Victorian times, but it won this year's Man Booker prize and it's been deluged with praise from critics, so even if you find it heavy going it will occupy most of the festive period and give you something to mull over and argue about with your literary friends into the new year.
By Donna Tartt
Not quite as lengthy as Eleanor Catton's novel, but nonetheless of blockbuster size. A boy and his beloved mother go to look at art in Manhattan and she's killed by a terrorist bomb, with the boy then having to fend for himself. However, he has with him a painting of a goldfinch bequeathed to him by a dying victim of the blast. The book itself takes the form of an odyssey about loss and redemption, the healing power of art and much else.
By Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury)
This book by a master of psychological fiction is perhaps one of his minor novels but its eponymous main character, a highly-strung book editor in 1960s New York, is persuasively drawn as she tries to cope with an uneasy marriage and with memories of a childhood dominated by an unloving father. A sense of the era is beautifully evoked and the writing is beautiful, too, in McGrath's cool way.