Miranda Seymour’s I Used To Live Here Once, a life of Jean Rhys is a biography of a messy, extraordinary life that was held from tragedy by Rhys’ tenacity at the desk. It is easy to think of her books as a kind of byproduct of poor luck and bad choices, but Sawyer gives Rhys back her writerly agency and attention to craft. Seven Steeples by Sara Baume reads like a distillation of lockdown but in a good way (if such a thing is possible). A close observation of the isolated life, it reminded me of Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival in its use of daily rhythm and ritual to create meaning. Subtle and uncompromising, it manages to be poetical and ordinary, plotless and compelling. Just lovely.
The Red Arrow by William Brewer is stunning: convincing and moving in its depiction of depression, delusion, failure, and finally rebirth. Its protagonist, a writer so overwhelmed he’s burned through a huge advance without writing a word of the promised novel, finds himself tasked with ghostwriting a physicist’s memoir in order to pay back his publisher. As he travels by the Frecciarossa in Italy, he recounts what’s led him to this point, from the nightmare of living through a chemical spill at home in West Virginia, to the marriage he’s terrified of destroying, to the psychedelic treatment that blew his mind wide open.
Catherine Ryan Howard
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka is easily the best book I’ve read this year. As a killer counts down his final hours on death row, we learn how he got there through the women in his life. I think it’s a masterpiece and I seriously regret reading it while I was in the depths of my own first-draft hell. I also devoured We Had to Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets (translated by Emma Rault), an exquisite and terrifying novella, and loved A Mother’s Heart by Carmel Harrington, a gripping family drama sure to get your book club buzzing.
The novel this year that has most delighted me is Audrey Magee’s The Colony: it’s political, funny, tense and written with unusual care. A serious novel which nonetheless delivers all the necessary pleasures. Maria Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady (translated by Thomas Bunstead) is playful and thought-provoking about reality and art; it packs a lot into a small space without feeling dense. Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer is like a monologue from your smartest, funniest friend; and John Walsh’s Circus of Dreams sent me reeling nostalgically back to the literary 1980s, where I may remain happily trapped for some time to come.
One of my favourite books so far this year is Tides by Sara Freeman, an illuminating, elegant novel with a compelling female protagonist on the run from her own life. I also enjoyed Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a compulsively readable collection about the hidden desires of a group of black women in the modern US. Spies in Canaan by David Park immerses the reader in the frenetic final few months of the Vietnam War with a poignant retrospective narrative full of loss and insight. Aingeala Flannery’s remarkably assured debut The Amusements gives a vibrant, funny account of life in an Irish coastal town.
The Ulysses centenary has seen the publication of ground-breaking Joyce books. Annotations to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Sam Slote, Marc Mamigonian and John Turner is, at 1300 pages, comprehensive, incisive and indispensable. John McCourt’s Consuming Joyce: A Hundred Years of Ulysses in Ireland offers a definitive account of the novel’s reception here. In The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses edited by Catherine Flynn, we have the 1922 text plus concise, readable and original essays on each episode by Joyce scholars. In The Book About Everything, edited by Declan Kiberd, Enrique Terrinoni and Catherine Wilsdon, 18 writers, including Marina Carr, Joseph O’Connor and Richard Kearney, respond to the 18 episodes of Ulysses.
The best reading experiences entirely cocoon you from daily life and I’m lucky to have had several such encounters already this year. These include Louise Kennedy’s stunning novel Trespasses and Ed O’Loughlin’s affecting memoir The Last Good Funeral of the Year. Emerging from their intoxicating spell took me quite some time. Watching the exquisite An Cailín Ciúin sent me back to Claire Keegan’s Foster and I’ll give myself the treat of rereading her most recent work Small Things Like These over the summer. Wendy Erskine’s latest stories in Dance Moves make for a thrilling, visceral read. In his addictive memoir, Poetry, Memory and the Party, poet Thomas McCarthy summons up a Cork filled with literary activity and no end of intrigue. Next up, I’ll be reading Miriam Toews’ Fight Night. A writer also deserving of more attention this side of the Atlantic is Jennifer Haigh – I’m loving her latest novel Mercy Street. And I’m fairly sure that I’m going to fall fast under the spell of Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples.
Most enjoyable novel of the year is A Killing in November by Simon Mason. A young woman is murdered in an Oxford college. An unlikely and loveable detective duo pursue her killer. Thrilling and funny, I loved it. Oxford is also the focus of Chums by Simon Kuper. It shows how the culture of that university decisively influenced the tone of British politics and led to Brexit. Brilliantly written, it gripped me. Wildland by Evan Osnos is the best book on the US that I have read in years. Low on hope but laced with insight and wisdom.
I was first seduced by the gorgeous cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, but was then hooked by this novel about a reclusive Hollywood star telling her life story to a little known journalist. Twists, turns, glamour and elegant writing all combine to make it a compulsive, entertaining read. The Dark Flood by Deon Meyer has a pacy storyline about corruption and fraud with the beautiful South African Western Cape as a background. It sees more trouble for detective Benny Griessel and a cast of engaging characters in the latest book of the series.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like Elizabeth Boyle’s Fierce Appetites. Boyle is a scholar of medieval Irish and Welsh literature and at one level her book is an exploration of the way people dealt with their emotions in the past. But it’s also a fiercely honest account of Boyle’s struggle with her own emotions in the period of lockdown. It’s one of those cocktails whose blend of unlikely ingredients could leave a bad taste, but instead cohere into a startling freshness. Boyle has the skill to move us between the raw and the refined, the mind and the body, the past and the present, the mundane and the marvellous without ever losing control of her dark materials.
I’m preaching to the choir here, but Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It is in many ways a conventional story – a love affair set in the stifling midst of the Troubles in Belfast – but it holds a cool collected power; the sentences and scenes building and tilting, until our hearts are gently crushed. Secondly, I’m a devoted fan of short story, and found Niamh Mulvey’s debut collection Hearts and Bones very pleasing. She is a stylish and inventive, yet precise, writer who captures a contemporary sensibility in her stories of love and disillusion.
In crime, Seasonal Work, Laura Lippman’s absorbing collection of short fiction leads the field, followed by Bad Actors by Mick Herron, The Winter Guest by WC Ryan, A Season in Exile by Oliver Harris and Dear Little Corpses, the 10th in Nicola Upson’s excellent Josephine Tey series. Vladimir, Julia May Jonas’s darkly funny take on the campus novel, and Acts of Service, Lillian Fishman’s philosophical tale of erotic obsession, feel like urgent intelligence from the sex wars front. The Written World is a pitch perfect collection of literary essays and reviews by the brilliant Irish novelist and critic Kevin Power.
My best book of the year so far is Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples. It’s about a young couple who isolate themselves in a run-down house on a remote Irish western coast. It’s witty and detailed and menacing, yet beautiful and full of soil, and dogs, and a mouse I almost cried over. It’s another gorgeous book from Tramp Press and I’m very lucky to be getting an advance read of one of their autumn releases: a literary horror by Sophie White called Where I End which I’m convinced will be at the top of a lot of close of the year lists of best books.
Terence Dooley’s magisterial and stylish Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution brilliantly depicts the history behind the gaunt ruins of the mansions (nearly 300) burnt-out in 1919-23. Using a marvellous range of sources, oral as well as archival, he suggests that this episode was not just an aspect of the Troubles, but constituted the last act of the Land War which begun 40-odd years earlier. The picture is embellished by Robert O’Byrne’s Left Without a Handkerchief, using some of the same sources to track 10 cases of burnt-out houses and families from contemporary records and memories. Both books illuminate a class and culture at the end of its days, and the enduring antagonisms of our history.
Two second collections of short stories that excited, amused and unsettled me eare Homesickness by Colin Barrett and Dance Move by Wendy Erskine. Different worlds, one Mayo-led, sharply precise and colourful in language and tone, the other Belfast set, quietly subversive and always attentive to the secret lives we live. I loved Julie Myerson’s Nonfiction: A Novel her fictive and not particularly meta plunge into parental guilt, anger and a first person narrator’s attempts to come to grips with a teenage daughter’s drug addiction. Tough stuff. Finally a trio of novels, Ross Raisin’s A Hunger, about a top-end London sous-chef, guilt, desire, and emotional hunger; Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais, translated by Sophie Hughes, shows two teenage boys caught in the violence of today’s Mexican society; and Edel Coffey’s Breaking Point was never less than entirely gripping and absorbing.
The Game by Tadhg Coakley is just lovely. Part-memoir, part-treatise, part-writing exercise, it’s an exploration of what sport means and what life means and where and how and why the one fits into the other. Phil by Alan Shipnuck is a brilliant biography of Phil Mickelson by probably the best golf-writer in the game. The first chapter alone – in which Shipnuck asks 30 different golf personalities for their best Phil Mickelson story – is the most enjoyable chapter I’ve read in a sports book for years. Field Of Brothers by Niall Patterson and Seamus Maloney is the fascinating autobiography of the Antrim hurling goalkeeper from their famous 1989 team. The sort of unique, twisty-turny tale sportspeople never really tell any more.
Multiple Joyce by David Collard – a smorgasbord of 100 short essays about James Joyce’s cultural legacy – kept me absorbed and laughing; it’s erudite and charming. I’ve also loved Cristín Leach’s memoir, Negative Space – it deftly and beautifully covers art, life and how to hold a survival space for the self during the trauma of marriage breakdown. I’ve enjoyed, too, Kathleen Murray’s funny and vibrant debut novel The Deadwood Encore, set in Carlow, and I think it will appeal to fans of Kevin Barry and Anakana Schofield’s writing. I’ve been moved by Jessica Traynor’s mothering poems in Pit Lullabies – intricate, thought-provoking and delightful.
Kit de Waal
This is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan is a memoir by one of the country’s leading screenwriters on a terrible change in her family’s life and her own diagnosis of breast cancer. It’s exactly as the title says, not pitying nor maudlin but brutally honest and very, very funny. The Quiet Whispers Never Stop by Olivia Fitzsimons, a confident debut from a new voice, is a multi-voiced family drama set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Well worth a read. Homesickness by Colin Barrett is another majestic collection from one of the best short story writers around, a whole world contained in a few pages. Excellent.
This year saw the return of two favourite heroines: trouble-shooting solicitor Finn Fitzpatrick in Catherine Kirwan’s twisty Cork crime novel, Cruel Deeds, and Selin, the Turkish-American student narrator of Elif Batuman’s brilliant and funny The Idiot. Either/Or finds Selin still at Harvard, living intensely with and through books – Kierkegaard, yes, but also the Let’s Go Guide to Turkey – as she figures out how to live and who to be. Selin’s struggles with compulsory heterosexuality find a dark echo in Seán Hewitt’s All Down Darkness Wide, a beautiful book that takes its title and much more besides from the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins.