Monday 23 September 2019

Real life, love and monsters - a rundown of the shortlist for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year award

The shortlist for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year award shows the depth and quality of Irish fiction

Irish voice: Belinda McKeon
Irish voice: Belinda McKeon
Author Kevin Barry

Deirdre Conroy

A wonderful way to herald the festive season is to celebrate our home-grown literary luminaries and have all sorts of book categories and shortlists to talk about and titles to mull over.

The Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards bring together the entire book community - readers, authors, booksellers, publishers and librarians. While all else around us might still be feeling the pinch of austerity, the Irish public will always love a good book. That is what makes these awards so special and why your vote counts.

The prestigious Novel of the Year award is sponsored by Eason and recognises the depth and quality of Irish fiction. Previous winners include international Man Booker Prize recipients Roddy Doyle for The Guts, John Banville for Ancient Life and Anne Enright for The Gathering. Colum McCann won the award in 2004 for Dancer, while Emma Donoghue won in 2010 for her highly acclaimed Room.

Last year, Mary Costello's quietly tragic tale Academy Street took the prize. In the past, the late John McGahern, Sebastian Barry, Neil Jordan, Ronan Bennett and Pat McCabe have all been honoured.

This year's nominees are a satisfying shortlist including fresh names, providing local and global narratives, all classic in their own way. Nuala O'Connor and Kevin Barry create fictional accounts of real characters. Belinda McKeon and Anne Enright focus on the minutiae of fractured Irish relationships. Meanwhile, Edna O'Brien and Paul Murray tackle some international monsters.


Belinda McKeon

Pan MacMillan/Picador

McKeon's second novel, Tender, evokes Dublin in 1998 on the cusp of social media saturation. Set in Trinity College, in a flat on Baggot Street and a couple of pubs, the story focuses on Catherine Reilly, who has left her native Longford to embark on her studies in Trinity. Her friendship with James Flynn, a gay aspiring artist, gallops into an all-consuming obsession for her. Dark and compulsive desire is the central theme of this pure, spare novel. The Guardian praised McKeon's "immersive, unflinching yet humane portrait of Catherine (which) makes Tender richly nuanced and utterly absorbing." McKeon now lives in New York. Miss Emily

Nuala O'Connor

Sandstone Press

The enigmatic life of Emily Dickinson holds a deep fascination for writers and readers alike. Nuala O'Connor has anglicised her name from Ni Chonchuir for the American market and has taken on the challenge of reimagining the reclusive poet's life through her relationship with an 18-year-old Irish maid, Ada Concannon. Ada is from Dublin and her story is narrated in alternate chapters, providing a lyrical counterpoint to the period tone of Dickinson's voice. The two women find common ground through a love of nature and baking. As the poet hardly ever left her house in Amherst, it is the two female personalities that enrich the novel. Born in 1970, O'Connor has also published poetry, fiction and short stories, and lives in Galway.

The Green Road

Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape

The Green Road is Enright's sixth novel. Born in 1962 in Dublin, she won both the Novel of the Year award and the Booker Prize for The Gathering. Enright is also our first Laureate of Irish Fiction. In The Green Road, she continues to probe the fault lines of family life. Deeply disenchanted characters vent their disappointment in a manner only Enright can channel.

In a tale that spans 25 years, Dan Madigan returns to his childhood home in west Clare, travelling the eponymous Green Road which runs through the Burren with glimpses of the Atlantic ahead. There is beauty and darkness, hypocrisy and humility; it wouldn't be an Irish novel without them.

The Mark and The Void

Paul Murray

Hamish Hamilton

The Mark and the Void is about the financial crisis and is Murray's third novel. Claude is a French investment banker based in Dublin. Murray's depiction of the city is one few of us would recognise or want to remember.

The other characters are French, German, Greek, Russian and Australian, giving the book a sense of anywhere, except when Claude finds himself on an unexpected journey: "And here, on the teeming road, are the Irish: blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived, burnished, beaming, snaggle-toothed, balding, rouged, raddled, exophthalmic … " The author of Skippy Dies has faced down the melodrama of our financial crisis and searched for meaning beyond.


Kevin Barry


Author Kevin Barry

Intrigued by John Lennon's purchase in 1967 of Dorinish Island in Clew Bay, Kevin Barry explores how the story might have played out through the perspective of Lennon's fictitious driver, Cornelius O'Grady.

It is 1978 and Lennon, aged 37, wants to retreat to the island, delve into his creative pool and do some primal screaming. A shaman is needed to negotiate the strange airs of the west coast, and O'Grady obliges.

Car and boat journeys around Mulranny and Newport nurture the psychedelic mythology. Lennon's mythic quest through the doors of perception define this book, which was making waves before it went on sale.

The Little Red Chairs

Edna O'Brien

Faber & Faber

Edna O'Brien, the doyenne of Irish writing, published her 24th novel, The Little Red Chairs, this year. Evidently based on Radovan Karadzic ("the Butcher of Bosnia"), a dark stranger comes to the fictional town of Cloonoila.

Dr Vladimir Dragan is ostensibly a healer and sex therapist from Montenegro. The local beauty, Fidelma, seeks help with fertility problems and falls in love with the mysterious Balkan.

But Vlad is a Serbian war criminal and his unveiling has global significance together with horrific consequences for Fidelma. O'Brien confronts evil head on, and typically shines a spotlight on an Irish rural community that punishes a woman who has broken the tribal rules.

The Sunday Times praised The Little Red Chairs as "a timely and defiant book".

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