Saturday 20 July 2019

Three Booker bids prove literary Ireland is 'alive and throbbing'

Dismiss the 'museum piece' epithet, the prize's latest longlist confirms the nation's place as a nursery for excellent wordsmiths. Hilary A White reports

TALENT: Rising star Sally Rooney. Photo: David Conachy

Hilary A White

Man Booker longlists often throw up talking points beyond the names making the cut. Last week's revelation was a case in point, showing the hallowed literary prize's evolving criterion. Remits seem to expand regularly with the Booker, both geographical and formal. This year, for example, we see Sabrina by Nick Drnaso become the first graphic novel to feature in the award's storied 49-year history.

While Irish nominees and winners (Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Anne Enright) are nothing new, a significant first arrives this year.

Titles published in Ireland can now be put forward for consideration, meaning that Donal Ryan's searing multifocal saga From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday) makes the penultimate hurdle.

Alongside it, we see two other Irish entries, both published by Faber & Faber.

Sally Rooney's Normal People (released on September 6) charts the heartbreak and complexity of young love, while Milkman by London-based Belfast writer Anna Burns brings an unsettling coming-of-age tale to sectarian Ulster.

Despite their literary excellence, all three hail from quite different schools, showing diversity and robustness in our writers and the themes they explore. Given the same number of US titles appear, it's hugely impressive for our island to fill three of the precious 13 berths to contend the £50,000 gong. With the Booker widening its net since 2013 to take in works from anywhere (they must be written in English and published in the UK), the message is clear: Ireland remains a nursery for exceptional wordsmiths.

Ryan makes his second appearance after his stellar 2013 debut The Spinning Heart was longlisted. It is just reward for an intriguing individual whose freakish consistency has been likened to Joseph Conrad.

Although dogged by rejections at the outset, Ryan seemed to arrive ready-formed, without third-level literature degrees or literary journal apprenticeships. This is the opposite of Trinity alumni Rooney, who at 27, is this year's joint-youngest nominee. Following a bidding war, the Castlebar native released debut Conversations With Friends last year, setting in motion an unstoppable march that saw the romantic saga become a staple of book clubs, and number Zadie Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker among its fans. Normal People and its longlisting should elevate her to another tier again.

Whether it will ever be enough for Ryan (who teaches creative writing at University of Limerick) or Rooney (editor of The Stinging Fly) to pack in the day jobs is unlikely. Literary fiction, even critically lauded, award-winning fare, can be notoriously sluggish in the small Irish market. But bigger cash awards can provide some years of security and industry door-opening, a dream to most novelists. This is precisely the situation Solar Bones author Mike McCormick (who teaches at NUI Galway) finds himself in following his recent €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award victory.

Last year's Booker winner - Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - saw a sales hike of 1,227pc in the immediate aftermath, something all nominees and their publishers would welcome. In a recent interview, Anna Burns, something of an unknown quantity herself, happily confirmed a sales spike for Milkman on the back of last week's news.

A shortlist of six comes on September 20, before the winner is revealed on October 16. William Hill currently has Michael Ondaatje's wartime family mystery Warlight as favourite (unlikely since Ondaatje's The English Patient is getting the Golden Man Booker Prize for the best previous winner of the last 50 years), with Ryan the best of the Irish in sixth place.

At 8/1, he is certainly worth a punt, but the overall feeling is that if our three contenders go no further in the race, their longlisting will still have sent out a signal that "literary Ireland" is not a museum piece - it's alive and throbbing.

Sunday Independent

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