Friday 20 September 2019

Fresh, lively new voices reflect the vibrancy of Irish debut writing

'The Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year' award has proven to be an excellent barometer of talent, writes Claire Coughlan

Irish author Belinda McKeon.
Irish author Belinda McKeon.

Claire Coughlan

Every year, six brand-new voices join the literary canon, as marked out by their inclusion in the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year award category at the An Post Irish Book Awards.

Past winners, including Belinda McKeon (Solace, 2011), Donal Ryan ( The Spinning Heart, 2012), Louise O'Neill (Only Ever Yours, 2014) and Sara Baume (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, 2015) have gone on to publish further work and win other awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for Sara Baume and the Guardian First Book Award for Donal Ryan, proving that the Newcomer category is an acutely accurate barometer of Irish contemporary writing. The above mentioned works all happened to be novels, arguably reflecting readers' tastes at the time.

That all changed last year when Ruth Fitzmaurice's powerful memoir, I Found My Tribe, about life after her husband Simon's motor neurone disease diagnosis, won the coveted Newcomer prize, the first time a non-fiction book had won.

In the interim, the past year has seen an explosion in the popularity of essay collections and personal memoirs, which is reflected in this year's shortlist, an eclectic mix of essays, novels and auto-fiction.

Interestingly, this year sees two out of six short-listed titles representing the non-fiction side of publishing. These include Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine, which is Tramp Press's first foray into publishing non-fiction. Pine's collection of personal essays candidly tackle subjects such as parental alcoholism, infertility, drug use and sexual violence.

Mind on Fire, by Arnold Thomas Fanning (Penguin Ireland) visits similar territory, confronting the author's battle with mental illness, which at one stage saw him sometimes in trouble with the law and homeless in London, ultimately culminating in his recovery.

Though This Hostel Life, by Melatu Uche Okorie, isn't strictly a memoir, it could be described as auto-fiction, as the three short stories within shine a light on Ireland's direct provision system, of which the author has eight years' personal experience.

This is the first title from new independent Irish publisher Skein Press. The book also features an essay by Dr Liam Thornton, from the UCD Sutherland School of Law, explaining the Irish legal position in relation to asylum seekers and direct provision.

The three novels on the list are fresh, lively representations of what's happening in the form, reflecting the vibrancy of Irish debut fiction.

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow (Granta Books) by Danny Denton is an inventive evocation of a dystopian Ireland under siege from the elements. Fellow Cork-born author Caroline O'Donoghue has made a splash with Promising Young Women (Virago), a timely tale of gender relations, about an adrift twenty-something young woman.

And last, but certainly not least, The Lost Letter of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen, is a quirky love story, about William Woolf, a 'letter detective' at the Dead Letters Depot in East London.

This has already been optioned for TV, and reflects the current demand for 'up-lit' titles - uplifting, feel-good fiction that provides good, old-fashioned escapism.

You can vote for your favourite title by visiting https://www.irishbookawards.irish/

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