Irish authors are back in the running for the world’s most prestigious literary award after a fallow year. The Booker Prize longlist includes Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These – at 116 pages, the shortest book recognised in the award’s history – and The Colony by Audrey Magee.
The £50,000 (€59,000) prize is open to works by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland. This year’s longlist of 13 nominees was chosen from a selection of 169 novels.
It is dominated by American writers, who make up six of the contenders, along with three British authors and one each from Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. Irish writers have previously enjoyed great success at the Booker Prize: Iris Murdoch was the first Irish-born author to win the prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea, followed by Roddy Doyle in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, John Banville in 2005 for The Sea, and Anne Enright in 2007 for The Gathering.
Most recently, Belfast writer Anna Burns took home the prize in 2018 for Milkman. Yet Irish writers missed out on last year’s longlist, and the previous two years’ selections each featured just one Irish nominee. This year sees a return to form, with the inclusion of Keegan and Magee.
Small Things Like These, the debut novel from celebrated short story writer Keegan, is set in New Ross, and follows a coal merchant who is facing his busiest period in the run-up to Christmas in 1985.
While making a delivery at a convent, he is forced to confront the legacy of the Magdalene laundries and his own past as the son of an unwed teenager.
The novel has been described as a feminist revision of A Christmas Carol, and recalls Charles Dickens’ story in its tenderness, without dipping into cloying nostalgia. It is dedicated to the women and children who “suffered time” in the laundries, and the Booker panel praised its “beautiful, clear, economic writing and an elegant structure dense with moral themes”.
Keegan is known for her finely judged brevity. She has won a series of awards for her work, including the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction for Small Things Like These.
The youngest of six children, her stories typically focus on family, and are often set in the south-east, where she grew up on a farm in Clonegal, Co Wicklow. She now lives on the Wexford coast.
Audrey Magee’s second novel The Colony takes place in the summer of 1979, when an English artist, Mr Lloyd, travels to a sparsely populated island off the west coast of Ireland to paint the landscape.
He is joined by Mr Masson, a French linguist of Algerian descent who is there to study native Irish speakers.
The visitors attempt to capture the essence of this remote island without considering the views of its inhabitants, yet the islanders have other ideas.
Magee punctuates her narrative with reports of sectarian violence claiming victims on the mainland, which slowly encroach on the bitter disputes around Irish identity on the island.
The Booker panel said: “Magee dissects the gulf between what Ireland is and how the rest of the world wants to fantasise it.”
The Enniskerry-based author has a spare, almost austere style, often writing one-sentence, or even one-word, paragraphs, more like fragments of verse.
She has a well-honed skill for drawing much from little, and in The Colony, she weaves a multi-layered story about history, art and the Troubles.
Magee worked as a journalist for 12 years, before writing her debut novel The Undertaking.
It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Irish Book Awards, and is now being adapted for film.
The Booker winner will be revealed on October 17.