Tuesday 12 December 2017

Ireland's finest do battle for coveted prize

The winners of the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year annually reflect the best of Irish writing. This year's shortlist is no exception

Maggie O'Farrell is one of a luminous group of Irish writers up for the Eason Novel of the Year Award which will be announced on Wednesday
Maggie O'Farrell is one of a luminous group of Irish writers up for the Eason Novel of the Year Award which will be announced on Wednesday

Anne Cunningham

The Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards has become the literary event of the year and Wednesday is this year's big night out for authors, publishers and readers alike. What started out small, as The Irish Book Awards with just three categories, has grown into a kind of Oscars for Irish books, where, unlike other prestigious book awards, the reading public gets to vote.

Probably the most coveted prize is the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year. A list of previous winners reads like a roll-call of the very best of Irish writers. John Banville has won twice, in 2006 and 2012 with The Sea and Ancient Light respectively, while Anne Enright won with The Gathering in 2008 and again last year with The Green Road. This year sees Emma Donoghue on the shortlist again, having won the award in 2010 for Room, which later became the Oscar-winning film.

Here is this year's shortlist:

All We Shall Know, - Donal Ryan: Melody Shee, a schoolteacher in a loveless and childless marriage, discovers that she's pregnant, but not by her husband. The baby's father is Martin Toppy, a student of Melody's, and a Traveller, just 19 years old. This is a novel about prejudice and violence, about the inherent hypocrisy within smalltown piousness, and about the terrible consequences of perceived betrayal.

The Irish Independent's Ruth Gilligan wrote that this is "undoubtedly Ryan's strongest work to date. His lightness of touch has been honed to such a degree that a rich, layered portrait of Melody and her world is conjured through the simplest of vignettes."

Days Without End, - Sebastian Barry: Thomas McNulty, aged just 17, survives his voyage across the Atlantic during the Great Famine. He meets John Cole and together they form a kind of drag queen show. They later join the army, fighting mostly Indians in the quest to conquer the lands of California and the surrounding states. Both brutally violent and intensely poetic, this book has wooed the critics. The Guardian's Alex Clarke wrote: "Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on."

Solar Bones, - Mike McCormack: Marcus Conway, deceased, finds himself back home in his kitchen, reflecting on how he got there, and on how he was taken away. Part fantasy, part family and social commentary, wholly admired by virtually everyone, it is McCormack's first novel since 2007.

As John Boland wrote in his Irish Independent review ". . . there are two novels going on here . . . one of them quite traditional in its portrait of a good man trying to do his honourable best for his family and for the local people . . . and one of them pondering the futility of all such human interactions in a meaningless universe".

The Lesser Bohemians, - Eimear McBride: Eimear McBride's first novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won several awards, including the Bailey's prize. Her second novel may share the same destiny. A young Irish drama student in London embarks on a traumatic relationship with an older actor.

This is a superior, if rather disturbing, love story. JP O'Malley, in his review of Bohemians for this newspaper, wrote: "McBride is a daring writer who is not afraid to mess with language, displaying its malleability, randomness and irregular rhythms in equal measure. Words and phrases often go back to front and scenes are pieced together almost like an impressionist painting through fragments, hazy images and a blur of uncertainty."

The Wonder - Emma Donoghue: English nurse Lib Wright is sent to Ireland in the 1850s to investigate how Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who has been fasting for four months, is still alive and seemingly healthy. Is this a miracle?

Lib Wright, who has nursed in Crimea, is sceptical. And as Anna's health begins to deteriorate, Lib becomes desperate to save her life. Stephen King, reviewing for the The New York Times, wrote that The Wonder reminded him of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge "…only turned inside out. Maugham's book is about the power of spirituality to heal. Donoghue has written, with crackling intensity, about its power to destroy".

This Must Be The Place, - Maggie O'Farrell: Daniel Sullivan is an American living in Donegal with his ex-film-star wife and their two children.

Claudette, his wife, is passionate about keeping unwanted visitors at bay - with a gun if necessary. Daniel has other children whom he never sees, from a previous marriage in California. He also has a father, whom he hates, in Brooklyn. The fractured pasts of both Daniel and Claudette threaten to destroy their present.

In a Telegraph interview, O'Farrell said: "Years ago I was in a cafe and a very famous actress walked in. Everyone was staring, taking photos and the paparazzi turned up. Later I saw her in the toilet with her head against a mirror and her eyes closed. I just thought, 'If I was her I'd probably fake my own death' - the idea that became This Must be the Place."

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