Louise Kennedy’s collection of short stories, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, has been chosen by Colm Tóibín as the winner of the John McGahern Prize for debut book of Irish fiction published in 2021. The prize, inaugurated and sponsored by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and now in its third year, was won last year by Hilary Fannin for The Weight of Love (Doubleday) and in in 2020 by Adrian Duncan for Love Notes from a German Building Site (Lilliput).
Also shortlisted were James Harpur’s The Pathless Country (Liquorice Fish Books) and Eimear Ryan’s Holding Her Breath (Sandycove). Tóibín, Tóibín, Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, said: “The stories in Louise Kennedy’s The End of the World is a Cul de Sac are beautifully crafted, wry in tone, often bleak. Kennedy can capture a character in a few sentences and the essence of a complex relationship in a few paragraphs.
“What is notable about the stories is their sense of felt life and their ability to match painful and difficult truth with wit and sharp humour. While the stories are smart and contemporary, concerned with the way we live now, they also contain dramas that transcend their own time and setting.”
Prof Pete Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies, remarked on the growing popularity of the prize: “With 24 very strong entries for this year’s competition, we saw 50 per cent growth from 2020. As in other years there was a nice balance of novels and short stories, mirroring John McGahern’s own tremendous facility in both genres, and we are delighted that a story collection has won for 2021. Louise Kennedy’s remarkable rise to the top of contemporary Irish fiction after a late start should be encouraging for all writers taking their first steps.”
A native of Hollywood, Co Down, Kennedy only began writing fiction in her forties as a result of a friend coaxing her to join a Sligo writing group. Though she had been an avid reader from childhood, it had never occurred to her to try writing and she had spent most of her adult professional life working as a chef.
In interview, she is self-deprecating and funny, starkly different in tone from some of the grim situations churned up by her fiction. She laughs about a recent encounter at a book reading in Belfast where one woman confessed to being worried about Kennedy’s mental health, such was the emotional toll of engaging with her stories. But while she certainly has an eye and an ear for melancholy and decline, her stories are also full of devilish humour.
There are dozens of marvellously observed images peppered throughout the book. One sharp example comes from the story Imbolc, where Stacey Rainey, the brassy and brilliantly realised adolescent sister of a local drug dealer, accelerates the decay of an uneven relationship: “Stacey Rainey was filling a bucket of water at the sink by the wall, dressed in a Letterkenny IT Gaelic football jersey that was a size too small and black wet-look jeggings.”
We meet Stacey again later in the book, less buoyant, exhausted, struggling to raise her sick child alone. The recurrence of characters across stories is a stylistic tactic that was favoured by John McGahern and which Kennedy especially admires in the “brutal but hilarious” stories of Ellen Gilchrist. Other influences include Isabel Allende’s The Stories of Eva Luna with its intriguing “flashes of otherworldliness”; and Anne Devlin’s 1988 collection The Way Paver, now puzzlingly, and regrettably, out of print. In particular the story Naming the Names, whose “tremendous, sinister control”, remembers Kennedy, “gave me a chill”.
One might say the same of Kennedy’s fiction: there is something quietly and memorably eerie, for instance, about the opening story that gives the book its title. The once glamorous and now abandoned wife of a Celtic Tiger cowboy property developer goes on a cocaine-fuelled date with a mysterious, flashy lout (the book is packed with a gallery of such thuggish, casually entitled men), and, via a series of subtle images interlinked with the choppy, demotic dialogue of rural Sligo, the whole, sorry world of post-crash Ireland reveals itself to the reader. Kennedy, when she began to write in 2014, was all too familiar with the wreckage of the so-called ‘downturn’. Like so many others in these years, she and her husband presided over a business in decline, the banks calling in debts, the airwaves filled with endlessly bad news.
Having enjoyed the writing workshop, and encouraged by her friend and fellow member of the group Una Mannion (whose terrific debut novel, A Crooked Tree, won the 2022 Kate O’Brien Award), Kennedy signed up for an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. Her drives to class from Sligo through rural Ulster, skipping through radio stations on either side of the border, became the soundtrack to her imagination as these stories took shape in a period of economic and social collapse.
The first story for which Kennedy felt she had caught the right tone was Hunter-Gatherers, published as the third story in the collection, which revolves around a young couple trying and failing to make a go of an alternative lifestyle on the edges of society. Kennedy recalls trying to hold her nerve with this newfound tone – its compelling mix of cruelty, hope and humour becomes the hallmark of The End of the World.
A novel of the Troubles titled Trespasses, recently BBC Radio 4′s Book at Bedtime, quickly followed her first book and Kennedy is equally happy working in both genres while admitting that a well-turned short story can “illuminate a truth or a moment better than a novel ever can”, although stories require a fiercely demanding intensity of composition not always necessarily the case with novels.
Now working on another novel and reading from her work at multiple book festivals as a celebrated newcomer, it must seem a long way from “barricading yourself in whatever room you can find, yawning into the void”, as Kennedy describes the writing process behind her superb stories.