William Trevor makes an Impac

 

There are exceptional novels on this year’s shortlist for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award but, as always with such contests, there are questions as to why certain books didn’t make it

OF THE many interesting points to be made about this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award is that among the four shortlisted women stands the possible winner. Also significant, and an obvious shortcoming, is the absence of a title in translation, while the presence of three Irish novelists, including one of the finest living writers in the world, emphasises the major status of Irish fiction.

It is a big list, there are 10 contenders, hailing from a relatively small – for a global prize – cross-section of cultures: North America, Australia and Ireland.

The strong favourite, Yiyun Li, is Chinese and her novel The Vagrantsis set in late-1970s China but she has declared for her adopted country, the United States.

Several of this year’s titles are already widely read and successful such as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacunawhich won The Orange Prize, while Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spinwon the National Book Award. Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, who won the 2004 Impac Award, has featured in many prize lists including the Man Booker long list and it won the 2009 Costa Novel Award. For sheer narrative mastery and beauty William Trevor’s Love and Summertowers above the rest.

The Australian contingent includes inaugural Impac winner David Malouf with Ransom, his evocative imagining of an episode from Homer’s Iliad and two impressive younger writers, Evie Wyld for After The Fire, A Still Small Voiceand Craig Silvey’s immensely appealing second novel, Jasper Jones.

Wyld’s dramatic debut about a damaged man’s attempts to reinvent himself was first published in London two years ago and was expected to make a louder critical Impact than it did. This is a vital and deserved second chance at reaching a wider audience.

Her fellow countryman Silvey, previously author of Rhubarb(2004), lives in Australia. Jasper Jones is a fast-moving first person narrative told by a boy burdened by a terrible secret.

As with any literary prize, particularly Impac because of the possibilities that emerge on the publication of a submissions list of 164 titles, there is the inevitable postmortem about those that failed to convince the judges.

It is disappointing not to see the young Peruvian, Santiago Roncagliolo’s wry, apocalyptic thriller Red Aprilon the list. It is an exciting, daring work, a real contender.

Another serious omission is German writer Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart. Both of these are major achievements and make the inclusion of Joyce Carol Oates’s breathless melodrama, Little Bird of Heaven, all the more difficult to understand. Not only is this one of her weaker novels, and yet again reworks her preferred theme of sexualised brutality, it is the most contrived work on the short list. Its menace is too obvious.

Of the many superior US novels that should have featured are Philipp Meyer’s American Rustwith its powerful echoes of John Steinbeck; Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termiteand Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

Equally it is a shame that Canadian Lisa Moore’s candid and convincing February, the story of a mother of four trying to make sense of her life after her husband is lost during an oil rig disaster, was overlooked.

Another novel that should have made it is South African Gill Schierhout’s haunting lament, The Shape of Him, which is far more erotic than Oates’s book.

While Jasper Jones is a welcome discovery, the only other unknown title is Newfoundlander Michael Crummey’s third novel, Galore. This graceful yarn, which has touches of magic realism set alight by the rugged seascape, is slightly too whimsical. Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in Americais a better book, yet it was ignored. Again, as with the Oates, the inclusion of Galoredraws more attention to the omissions than to its own merits. (Although in fairness to Crummey, Little Bird of Heavenis the worst book on this list).

In a year in which one of the judges is poet Michael Hofmann, one of the most gifted translators today, it is disappointing to see no translated titles. Why not Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report,never mind Julia Franck or 1997 winner Javier Marias, nominated for the final part of his Your Face Tomorrowtrilogy.

The most important aspect of this award has not only been its campaigning international quality but the fact that it has consistently alerted readers to the range of fiction made available through the immense contribution of translators.

It is not the first time it has happened. In 2000, the year in which Nicola Barker won ahead of Toni Morrison and Philip Roth – and when Colum McCann was shortlisted for This Side of Brightness– no translated titles were included. Also interesting to note is that in 1998, when the award was won by Herta Müller for The Land of Green Plums, it was the only novel in translation on the list. The same thing happened in 2007 when Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horsestook the prize.

Malouf’s Ransom is a beautiful work and it is easy to see why any panel would find it impossible to ignore. King Priam as a father not as a ruler makes a dignified plea to Achilles for the return of his son’s body and Malouf shows that not only is he a gifted story teller, he is also a poet. But it won’t win.

History and real-life people are often contentious devices in fiction yet Barbara Kingsolver’s big, bold exploration of how the individual was bullied by the hypocrisy and paranoia of McCarthyism is relentlessly readable and far better written than the Oates, in which urgency often gives way to careless writing.

Thanks to Impac, Jasper Jones is already poised to win an extensive readership. Although not as profound as Skippy Dies, it is very funny and dark. Charlie, the likeable narrator, conveys a vivid sense of present day Australia.

In common with Kingsolver, McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, this year’s most nominated novel, looks to history and fact and, above all, to character. Individual lives are lived against vivid backdrops. McCann has written a novel about New York that achieves the near-impossible: it captures a city that is always on the move.

Is there anyone at this point who has not read Brooklyn? Tóibín’s muted tale of emigration and thwarted love bears the influence of two Irish masters: John McGahern and William Trevor.

It is ironic that Trevor also features on this year’s shortlist with his 14th novel, Love and Summer, a delicate romance set amid the savagery of small-town life and a clutch of secrets.

Not only is this a great novel, it is a great Trevor novel. The blend of humour and pathos sets it apart. Trevor is a master for many reasons, not least because of his supreme understanding of human emotions and aspirations; weaknesses and regrets.

The strongest challenge is Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants. She won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, an attractive collection that did not suggest that she could write a novel as powerful as The Vagrants. So Yiyun Li has a very good chance of coming to Ireland to collect the world’s largest prize for a single work of fiction.

The only writer that seems capable of preventing this unique double is revered by writers and readers all over the world; Trevor is living proof that fiction is an international language, and that story is universal.

Impac shortlist

Galoreby Michael Crummey (Canadian) Doubleday Canada

The Lacunaby Barbara Kingsolver (American) Faber & Faber, HarperCollins, USA

The Vagrantsby Yiyun Li (Chinese / American) Random House, USA

Ransomby David Malouf (Australian) Random House Australia

Let the Great World Spinby Colum McCann (Irish) Bloomsbury, UK, Random House, USA

Little Bird of Heavenby Joyce Carol Oates (American) Ecco Press, USA

Jasper Jonesby Craig Silvey (Australian) Allen & Unwin

Brooklynby Colm Toibín (Irish) Viking UK, Scribner, USA

Love and Summerby William Trevor (Irish) Viking, UK

After the Fire, a Still Small Voiceby Evie Wyld (Australian) Pantheon Books, USA