Saturday 25 January 2020

Shortlist shows a good year for quality fiction

Fifty-five novels were submitted for this year's Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, worth €15,000, and the overall quality can be gauged from the books that failed to make the shortlist, which was announced last Wednesday at a Mansion House reception to launch the 2012 Listowel Writers' Week festival.

All sorts of fiction was entered, from chicklit and crime to historical sagas, many of these by authors of renown, but for one reason and another myself and fellow judge Rita Ann Higgins didn't think they merited being on the shortlist.

This wasn't because we disdained any particular genre -- William Ryan's superb thriller The Holy Thief was shortlisted last year -- or because of a bias towards 'literary' novels, as some of these didn't make the cut either.

Indeed, it proved a good year for fiction when we found ourselves having to pass over the claims of Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side, Gerard Stembridge's Unspoken and Dermot Healy's Long Time, No See.

In the event, and with little of the wrangling that's supposed to mark such judging debates, we settled on five books, two of them by men -- Carlo Gebler's The Dead Eight, a masterly reimagining of an historical murder in the Tipperary of the 1940s, and Kevin Barry's brilliantly inventive City of Bohane, which I'd somewhat underrated when I reviewed it last year.

Bohane is an imagined city, but Dublin featured prominently in the three women's novels: Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz, a wry and moving account of adultery from boom to bust; Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Cold Eye of Heaven, whose daring narrative chronicles a city man's life from grave to cradle; and Belinda McKeon's Solace, an affecting first novel that's as much at home in the bars of the capital as in the byways of Longford.

Now we have to select an outright winner, to be announced on May 30, which is the Listowel festival's opening night. Let's hope Rita Ann and myself can continue to avoid wrangling.

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