We asked some of Ireland’s leading writers and reviewers to champion their books of the year. You can read about their favourites below.
We also asked our critics to select their own highlights. Follow one of these links to read Malachy Clerkin on sports books / Tony Clayton-Lea on music books / Rory Kiberd on nonfiction books / Adrian Duncan on art books / Seán Hewitt and Martina Evans on poetry /Niamh Donnelly on fiction / Jane Casey on crime fiction / Claire Hennessy on young-adult fiction / Sara Keating on children’s books /
It seems I have been reading locally, which is no bad thing, because the pick of the international crop is home grown. Hands down the best book this year was Trespasses by Louise Kennedy. There has been praise for Kennedy’s eye in recreating the Belfast of the mid-70s, but it is the precision of the emotional detail that holds the readers attention: after a while, you forget to exhale. All Down Darkness Wide is a first and early memoir from young Seán Hewitt that tells of a failed romance with a difficult man. Barely into his 30s, Hewitt’s poetic sensibility gives this exploration of empathy a lovely long, and mature cadence. He is a very wise child indeed. I tore through Fergal Keane’s The Madness, which is written with the professional ease of an experienced reporter – but it is the dispatches from the war zone of his heart that really grip, Keane has achieved a difficult insight into his own frailty. – Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress.
Those of us who slave in the opinion mines secretly hate Marina Hyde. Our only consolation has been that she’s so funny it is easy to miss the acute intelligence she brings to bear on the follies of contemporary British politics. But even that game is up with the appearance of What Just Happened, a book to have you howling simultaneously with rage and laughter. Why do they keep feeding her material?
Not many books really are “unique”, but Elizabeth Boyle’s Fierce Appetites is certainly a one-off. Boyle is a scholar of medieval Irish and Welsh literature and at one level the book is a startling exploration of the way people dealt with their emotions in the past. But it’s also a fiercely honest account of her personal struggles with emotions in the period of lockdown.
There is so much remarkable Irish fiction at the moment that this whole page could be justifiably filled with it. Invidious as it is to pick a few cherries from the tree, Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples, Colin Barrett’s Homesickness and Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses are all remarkable.
Finally, Bono’s Surrender is a terrific memoir, not just of the strangeness of rock stardom but more importantly of the ordinary aspects of life: grief, loss, love, his complex relationship with his father. You come for the celebrity but stay for the familiarities that are explored with tenderness and grace. – Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958.
As it happens, most of my favourite fiction this year came from Irish authors. Although Claire Keegan was robbed of the Booker for Small Things Like These, it was some consolation to discover another of her gems, Foster, in its reissue. By bringing a time and place to life in Trespasses, Louise Kennedy reminded me what fiction can do. And I bow down to Wendy Erskine’s continued mastery of the short story in her collection Dance Move.
As for non-Irish authors, Twixmas is the perfect time to get immersed in Septology, Jon Fosse’s 825-page meditation on the divine (translated by Damion Searls). On the other side of the scale, weighing in at just 64 pages, Helen DeWitt’s The English Understand Wool is a delight. As is Bonnie Garmus’s (midweight) Lessons in Chemistry.
In nonfiction, I was blown away by Hayley Campbell’s All the Living and the Dead, her hands-on reportage of professions in the death industry. Danielle Friedman’s Let’s Get Physical highlights the pioneers who opened the floodgates of exercise to women. And fellow book nerds will appreciate Emma Smith’s Portable Magic, a history of books as objects. Despite recurring doomsday prophecies, the technology of bound pages endures. Magical indeed. – Mia Levitin is a critic and author of The Future of Seduction.
Audrey Magee’s The Colony remains a favourite but I chose it in the summer picks so I won’t bang on about it again (but do read it!). Wendy Erskine’s collection of stories Dance Move has contents as intriguing as the title: funny, eccentric, perfectly-pitched stories about relationships and the funny things people do to each other, which I would love even if they weren’t mostly set in my neck of the woods. I only came to read Colin Bateman’s memoir Thunder and Lightning because I was interviewing him, but I loved it anyway: it’s a brilliant account of growing up in Northern Ireland, full of his trademark wit and willingness to make us laugh at things we shouldn’t be laughing at.
From Britain, a couple of midcareer novelists proved that writing is something you can get better at with practice. Ross Raisin’s A Hunger is technically brilliant (a first-person narrative that doesn’t use the word I) but completely engaging and open-armed to readers willing to hear about a woman’s place in the hypermasculine world of restaurant kitchens. And Benjamin Wood, one to watch for some years now, produced his best novel yet with The Young Accomplice, about two young offenders being given a second chance in a progressive architectural practice in the 1950s. Both Raisin and Wood deserve to be far better known. – John Self is a critic.
The first two lines of John Banville’s The Singularities tell us what sort of novel we’re reading. “Yes, he has finished his sentence, but does that mean he has nothing more to say? No, indeed, not by a long stretch.” How is a prison sentence like a prose sentence? The novelist is sentenced to prose, of course. But the puns are the least of it. Freddie Montgomery, the murderer who narrated The Book of Evidence (1989), has served his time at last, and emerges into a changed world: an alternative reality (which is, of course, another term for “fiction”) in which characters, settings, moods, tones, and themes from Banville’s previous novels consort. The mood is partly elegiac – Banville has said this will be his last “serious” novel – and partly hilarious. It is a unique book; one of Banville’s best. In a so-so year for fiction, two other books by Irish writers stood out: Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, a brilliant re-creation of 1970s Belfast, and Colin Barrett’s Homesickness, eight superbly crafted short fictions about the idea of home and the question of what happens when you leave. – Kevin Power’s latest book is The Written World.
It was a strong year for nonfiction, notably Colm Tóibín’s essay collection A Guest at the Feast, Gavin McCrea’s memoir Cells and Sean Hewitt’s All Down Darkness Wide. Two short-story collections I really enjoyed: Rebecca Miller’s Total and Niamh Mulvey’s Hearts and Bones. Sara Baume’s entrancing novel Seven Steeples is unlike anything else you’ll read this year, a true original. Further afield, Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist is a stylish, voice-driven novel about a narcissistic artist and the damage he wreaks on family, while Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends is a compelling exploration of private and public lives in free fall in 1980s Karachi. – Sarah Gilmartin is the author of Dinner Party.
This year saw so much stellar Irish writing: Polluted Sex, short stories by Lauren Foley, Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples, Edel Coffey’s thriller Breaking Point (all novels), Jessica Traynor’s poetry collection Pit Lullabies and, in nonfiction, David Tom’s Pacemaker and Tadhg Coakley’s The Game. The Book of Goose, Yiyun Li’s arch novel of two friends who co-write a book; PJ Harvey’s stunning Orlam, a dialect-heavy ode to the land; Jayne Quan’s eloquent account of transitioning and their brother’s death in All This Happened, More or Less and Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night – a manifesto on writing and reading – all stood out. In music, I enjoyed Jude Roger’s touching memoir The Sound of Being Human, Vashti Banyan’s peripatetic autobiography Wayward, Arusa Qureshi’s Flip the Script on women in British hip hop, Stephanie Phillips’s Why Solange Matters and Cosey Fanny Tutti’s Re-Sisters, about her own life in music alongside Margery Kempe and Delia Derbyshire. Nick Cave and Sean Ó’Hagan’s thoughtful dialogue in Faith, Hope and Carnage on grief, creativity and spirituality stopped me in my tracks. I also loved Alison by Lizzie Stewart, a tender graphic novel about a struggling artist, her friendships and making the work. – Sinéad Gleeson’s latest book is This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music, edited with Kim Gordon
Already established as a leading voice in Irish literature as a novelist, Gavin McCrea’s first foray into memoir, Cells: Memories for My Mother, allows him to pour his literary prowess into a heart stopping excavation of the self. With unflinching precision, he deconstructs his relationship with his mother, his vicious experiences of homophobic bullying while growing up in Ireland, the lingering, toxic power of shame and how, out of all of this, a writer emerged. It makes for difficult reading at times, but it’s the best sort of difficult in that ultimately you will be a better person for it. Witnessing someone tell the truth of who they are, and extract meaning that elevates their singular story to something universal and profound, is a mind-altering thing. Ultimately, despite the gut-wrenching account of the inhumanity in McCrea’s past, the lingering feeling after reading is one of hope. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing someone emerge from darkness with a voice, still standing, unafraid to let all their colours dazzle. Long after we are all dust, people will still be reading this memoir and finding comfort, inspiration, and the courage to speak the truth of their own reality. An antidote to shame that this country sorely desires, Cells will heighten the capacity for empathy in all who read it. Not least of all, empathy for the self. – Helen Cullen’s latest novel is The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually.
Seán Hewitt’s All Down Darkness Wide: A Memoir is beautifully written. It is honest and revelatory without being indulgent and manages to do justice to a variety of interwoven themes: coming to terms with sexual identity, the power of nature and environment, linguistic and academic barriers and bridges, and heartbreak and human resolve. The local historian and genealogist Brian Smith’s Irish Civil War Executions 1922-1923 is a 60-page pamphlet published by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council that soberly records the lives and deaths of the 81 men executed during our Civil War a century ago; assembling this information creates a necessary space for some of the far too many who were forgotten. There is much to savour in Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories: human demise and decrepitude, but also humanity and humour, whether in Derry in 1972 or Vienna in 1918. The poet Thomas McCarthy’s Poetry, Memory and the Party: Journals 1974-2014 is a sprawling, insightful, gossipy, frank and entertaining overview of culture, arts administration and local and national politics; it is unusual, original and absorbing. The researcher Luba Vinogradova’s unearthing of personal testimonies for Antony Beevor’s Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-21 results in an unflinching documenting of “the extremes of sadism” during those conflicts. – Diarmaid Ferriter’s Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War is published by Profile Books
In John Banville’s intensely engaging novel The Singularities, many characters from his earlier fiction mingle with each other as though surviving in a strange aftermath. The novel’s tone is both hushed and playful, dreamy and amused, like a deeply textured and grainy photograph where objects and figures are ghostly, soon to disappear.
Vona Groarke’s Hereafter: The Telling Life of Ellen O’Hara investigates and imagines the emigrant life of her great-grandmother. Groarke uses fact when fact is available; she does some ingenious work in the archive, studying the world of Irish maids in the US. And then she writes poems and sets out to wonder, understanding that gaps can have as much power as what can be proved. Her book is a groundbreaking study of a single life that was lived in the shadows.
A number of good books have marked the centenary of The Waste Land, most notably Robert Crawford’s Eliot After the Waste Land and Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, but, for me, the most brilliant and incisive new book on Eliot is Lyndall Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse, which looks at Eliot’s poetry in the light of his recently opened correspondence with Emily Hale. – Colm Tóibín’s latest book is A Guest at the Feast.
In 2022 I spent many happy hours with the New Yorker fiction podcast, where I discovered Alexander MacLeod’s short story collection Animal Person. Macleod writes with a precise beauty on the potent complications of humans and the distances between them. Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or is extremely funny and delightfully ludic, as it probes the very act of reading from the point of view of confused university student Selin. Because the last three months have put a small hole in my head, An Unusual Grief by Yewande Omotoso, whose previous Dublin Literary Award-shortlisted novel The Woman Next Door I appreciated so much, will surely repair it. All three writers will make your reading brain giddy with the possibilities of craft. – Anakana Schofield’s latest novel is Bina.