It’s always tempting to draw parallels when looking at a group of novels, such as those on the shortlist for the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at this year’s Bord Gais Energy Book Awards, to find the links between them, the common preoccupations, to insist that they have to say something about contemporary Ireland. However, this list is notable for the sheer diversity of subjects, for its dazzling array of voices and for its ambitious daring that takes it far beyond these parochial considerations. A whole new generation of Irish writers has come of age.
In this exciting shortlist, six Irish writers take us from the Russian front in World War II, in Audrey Magee’s Bailey’s Prize-shortlisted The Undertaking, to a viciously competitive girls’ school of a very particular kind in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours; from the last day of the Leaving Cert and the first day of the rest of four young men’s lives in Rob Doyle’s Here are the Young Men, to the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air, proclaimed as ‘daring, ambitious, epic, moving’ by Colm Toibin; from a tender relationship between an Irish woman and her mother’s carer in Oona Frawley’s Flight, to the squirm-inducing shame of not belonging and the struggle to grow up in Eoin C. Macken’s Kingdom of Scars.
This is a list for our times, in which Irish writers can stay put or travel to other countries, buoyed by a self-confidence arguably lacking in previous generations. To write The Undertaking, Audrey Magee had to leave the leafy lanes of Wicklow behind and immerse herself in the privations of the Russian Front and the realities of wartime Berlin, but unlike many other writers, she chose to look at the war through the eyes of a German couple, reluctant recruit Peter, and his mail-order bride Katarina.
To write about the impact of the conflict on ordinary German people might seem a tricky moral enterprise, but she was helped by German Heinrich Boll, who immortalised his stay on Achill in the 1950s in his ‘Irish Journal’, as she explained, ‘If he could write about my country, I could write about his.’
For Darragh McKeon, Colum McCann’s novel about Rudolf Nureyev, Dancer, gave him permission to undertake a hugely ambitious ten-year project, to write about the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, a project that began with observing the young Ukranian visitors to his home town in Co. Offaly. Again, McKeon does this through the eyes of ordinary Soviets, who encapsulate the Soviet great plan and how terribly it fell apart.
For Oona Frawley, the ruins of Saigon after the Vietnam War, the suburbs of Connecticut and the exotic properties of spices provide a thrilling backdrop for a novel about identity and belonging, as Elizabeth, who is looking for a place called home, and her mother’s carer, Sandrine, exiled from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, form a bond that will change each woman for ever.
For other writers on the shortlist, being part of the modern world, with all its anxieties and moral ambiguity, its ‘always-on’ culture, is a clear theme. For Louise O’Neill, our current obsession with body image and with physical perfection is transformed into a daring, vividly realised Handmaid’s Tale for the 21st century, as, at a sinister boarding school, frieda and isabel (sic) battle themselves and each other to be the perfect woman, in a place where friendships are sacrificed, calories are ruthlessly monitored and the penalty for weight gain is to be ostracised, a place where ‘personality does not matter. All that matters is being pretty’.
For Rob Doyle, the insecurity comes in being on the verge of adulthood in a world where all of the certainties of previous generations have been removed. Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney spend the summer after their Leaving Cert drifting between raves, taking drugs and hitting the beach. On the springboard of life, they are ready to jump off: whether to disaster or success is anyone’s guess — either way, it’s a very fine line.
Finally, Eoin C. Macken chooses the vehicle of the perennial outsider to explore the bleak, intense realities of being young, when absolutely everything matters, as Sam struggles to fit in, welcome neither in his private boys’ school, nor in his less affluent neighbourhood. Caught between two worlds, not even cigar-smoking Jesuit Don, who keeps an eye out for him, can protect him from the harsh realities of growing up.
When asked to provide advice to beginner writers, Nail Gaiman said, ‘Tell your story. Don’t try to tell the story that other writers can tell.’ Each of these novels – vivid, exciting, diverse – belongs emphatically to its author.
Kingdom of Scars
Eoin C. Macken
Ward River Press
‘They had something that could never be erased for the rest of their lives and he would never understand. He was more of an outsider now than ever.’ Sam wants nothing more than to belong, even if that means smashing cars or drinking or pretending to witness something awful that he hasn’t, just so he can be like the other boys. But Sam is going to have to work things out on his own.
Here Are The Young Men
IF it’s broken, don’t fix it. If it’s fixed, break it, break it more, break it again. Wreck everything and for no reason whatsoever.’ Rob Doyle lays bare the secret lives of youngsters in contemporary Dublin. In a debut that has been described predictably as an Irish Trainspotting, it is certainly powered by a nervy energy, but less showy and with an eye for the darkly comic
IN this nuanced, beautifully written, tender debut, Frawley looks at identity and its connection to nationality through the eyes of Sandrine, a Zimbabwean who has come to Ireland to work to support her family, and who writes home to her husband and son of the strange place in which she’s landed, and Elizabeth, who spent so much of her life in exile in Vietnam and America and who is trying to understand what home really means.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
HE opens his eyes and the sky floods his retina, a sky of the deepest crimson. It looks as if the earth’s crust has been turned inside out.’ At first, young Ukranian Artyom doesn’t understand what he’s seeing, but the reality soon becomes apallingly clear. The Communist Manifesto tellingly provides the title for McKeon’s look at the impact of great events on ordinary people but also on the failure of a great idea.
Katharina’s first introduction to her mail order husband, Peter, is when she has to rid him of his head lice when he comes home on leave from the Russian Front. Magee’s spare prose serves to amplify the horrors: Peter’s irritation at having to leave his new wife to ‘drag snivelling children from attics and cellars’, while he and Katharina plan a family of their own is particularly chilling. A bold, starkly beautiful and brave novel about the effects of war.
Only Ever Yours
'I want to hide, fold into the shadows and become invisible so no one can look at me any more.' frieda (sic) has to have her ‘foto’ taken at the start of term in the School, to determine her ranking among the other girls for the year and to secure her a rich and successful husband. O’Neill’s moral fable is a startlingly original look at the realities of young women’s lives.