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Six marvellous writers provide the best panacea for our times

Five of the titles on the Eason Novel of the Year shortlist are written by women and two are about pandemics. Anne Cunningham wonders about the zeitgeist of it all as she casts her eye over a sextet of outstanding reads

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Nominee: Emma Donoghue

Nominee: Emma Donoghue

Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell

Exhilarating writing: Elaine Feeney. Photo by Julia Monard

Exhilarating writing: Elaine Feeney. Photo by Julia Monard

Anne Enright (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Anne Enright (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Author Donal Ryan. Picture By David Conachy.

Author Donal Ryan. Picture By David Conachy.

Author Caoilinn Hughes

Author Caoilinn Hughes

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Nominee: Emma Donoghue

It's more than a little odd that two of the shortlisted novels for this year's Eason Novel of the Year Award are about pandemics, the novels themselves written before anyone had heard of Covid-19. The less rational among us might suggest it's a divine signal; Irish novelists, some of them anyway, would seem to possess the gift of soothsaying. The rest of us merely wonder about the zeitgeist of it all.

The two pandemic novels are, at any rate, marvellous reads for the times we're in. Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (Tinder Press) is set in Shakespeare's England during the bubonic plague (it even features lockdowns), while Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars (Picador) is set in Dublin during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

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Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell

 

 

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Author Caoilinn Hughes

Author Caoilinn Hughes

Author Caoilinn Hughes

 

And while much is written, year on year, about the Irish pastoral novel being dead since McGahern, fresh masterpieces continue to pop up out of the ditches. The Wild Laughter and Donal Ryan's Strange Flowers (Doubleday) are both set in the rural midlands. Anne Enright's Actress (Jonathan Cape) is, like Donoghue's novel, set in Dublin, the city that Hollywood star Katherine O'Dell flees to when she's too old (about 30) for the film industry.

Locations are a common factor but these six outstanding novels are as diverse as it's possible to be, and choosing a single winner from this lot will be no cakewalk. A potted synopsis of each can hardly do any of them justice, but needs must…

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Author Donal Ryan. Picture By David Conachy.

Author Donal Ryan. Picture By David Conachy.

Author Donal Ryan. Picture By David Conachy.

 

Enright's Actress begins with a young PhD student visiting writer Norah FitzMaurice, informing her about a dissertation she's writing on Norah's once-famous actress mother. Norah then decides she should write the story herself.

Early on we learn that Katherine O'Dell died in an asylum, incarcerated there after shooting a movie impresario. And so begins the excavation of this mother-daughter relationship. Families and their quirks have always lit Enright's pen, but this novel is her pièce de résistance.

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Anne Enright (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Anne Enright (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Anne Enright (Anthony Devlin/PA)

 

Family is also the focus of Ryan's Strange Flowers. In 1970, Moll Gladney leaves her home in rural Tipperary, stealing off secretly in the night. She returns five years later, with not a word from her in between. Those five traumatic years have changed her parents' lives and faith profoundly, but there is more upheaval to come. In a novel about innocence, gender, sexual freedom and racism, Ryan's cartography of the human soul remains unrivalled.

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Exhilarating writing: Elaine Feeney. Photo by Julia Monard

Exhilarating writing: Elaine Feeney. Photo by Julia Monard

Exhilarating writing: Elaine Feeney. Photo by Julia Monard

Feeney, a poet, makes her fiction debut with As You Were, which has, as the Times Literary Supplement put it, "the set-up of a water-tight play". The stage is a hospital ward where Sinead Hynes finds herself, having disclosed her cancer diagnosis to precisely nobody. As meditations go, this is no serene reflection but rather an urgent, chaotic and often very funny one. The unravelling of the patients' life stories within these four peeling walls make Feeney's novel a worthy contender for the award; it's the only debut on the shortlist.

A hospital ward is also the setting for Donoghue's eerily prescient The Pull of the Stars. Nurse Julia Power works in the Maternity Fever ward of a Dublin hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Lack of staff and supplies make conditions insufferable, but young nurses' aide Bridie Sweeney lightens Julia's workload, and her affections.

When Dr Katheen Lynn arrives (a real-life activist, nationalist and feminist who later co-founded St Ultan's Children's Hospital), Julia is forced to re-evaluate her views on politics, poverty and the nature of goodness itself. Vintage Donoghue, it's a beautifully crafted work, published with seemingly impeccable timing.

Hughes's The Wild Laughter is as much a state-of-the-nation novel as it is a tragic family saga. Set in the immediate post-Tiger years, it depicts the cracks within a Roscommon farming family, broken wide open when the father Manus is diagnosed with cancer.

Manus is determined to retrieve his lost investment money from a poorly judged speculation project and the consequences are catastrophic, felt most keenly by his youngest son. It's an absolute stunner of a novel.

Hamnet was William Shakespeare's only son. The playwright named his Prince of Denmark after this boy, who died from bubonic plague at the age of 11. O'Farrell's Hamnet is a fictional account of the little boy's life and death. It is an astoundingly beautiful work. A review in The Guardian newspaper said it "confirms O'Farrell as an extraordinarily versatile writer, with a profound understanding of the most elemental human bonds". I couldn't put it any better.

The winner will be announced on November 25. In the meantime, reading these magnificent novels is the best possible panacea for these uncharted times.

To tie in with the announcement of the An Post Irish Book Awards shortlist, the public are being asked to cast their votes online for the best books of the year at www.anpostirishbookawards.ie. All voters will be entered into a prize draw to win one of five €100 National Book Tokens vouchers. Votes may be cast until November 16.


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