The Dublin Literary Award is always one of the most interesting in the prize calendar. It’s wide-ranging – novels published in English from anywhere in the world are eligible – and truly democratic: books are nominated by public libraries around the globe.
This is the 28th year of the award, sponsored by Dublin City Council, and the shortlist has been chosen by a judging panel that includes the writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa, the novelist and University College Dublin creative-writing professor Sarah Moss, and the Irish-Nigerian poet and playwright Gabriel Gbadamosi.
It’s a varied and surprising shortlist this year. There are four books in translation, no Irish writers, and no big names unless you count Anthony Doerr, the American epic specialist, or Percival Everett, whose 20-odd novels had made little impact here until he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year. Let’s take a closer look at the shortlisted titles, starting with the ones I like best.
Em by Kim Thúy
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Seven Stories Press, £9.99
“War, again,” begins Em, by the Quebecois writer Kim Thúy. Yes, it’s a popular subject for fiction, but this time we’re in what the Americans called the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese called the American War. “This distinction is perhaps what explains the cause.” The story comes in snippets, each a few pages long, delineating the various characters and how they connect.
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We see how the war affects generations of Vietnamese people, who are already suffering the impact of French colonialism. (One effect is concisely summarised by the French using the same Vietnamese word to mean both girl and prostitute.) Ultimately the story settles on Louis – street boy, shoe shiner and pickpocket – and the baby he rescues, known as Emma-Jade. “People who own only the clothes on their backs know they have to help each other out.”
There’s a patchwork of things we recognise from the first war of the mass media age – the monk who made himself a “human torch” – and plenty we don’t, for example that Hugh Hefner gave the use of his private jet and Playboy Bunnies to aid the effort to rescue children from the war zone.
All in all, Em’s concise approach achieves wonders by delivering a big story in a small space, as evidenced by Thúy’s summary of the rationale presented to Richard Nixon of why the war had to continue: “10% to support democracy; 10% to support South Vietnam; 80% to avoid humiliation.”
Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp
Translated by Jo Heinrich
Peirene Press, £12
“In middle age,” wrote John Cheever in his journal, “there is mystery, there is mystification.” For the narrator of Marzahn, Mon Amour, they are “the fuzzy years”, when “you’re even more invisible than you were”. She’s a writer, but, having had her new book roundly rejected, she trains as a chiropodist, working in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn, once East Germany’s largest housing estate. Four years later she has “taken care of approximately 3,800 feet, in other words 19,000 toes.”
This is the springboard for her to tell a whole city’s stories, person by person. (It’s apt that this novella was chosen for the Berlin equivalent of One Dublin One Book.) That should provide a portrait of a place, though really what we get is a subset of the place: the old, the unwell. There are patients with “potato feet”, one man with so many prostheses he is half-human half-machine, and a ninetysomething woman for whom a trip to the toilet is a major undertaking.
But, at their age, they have interesting stories to tell. “I want to pay tribute to her lifetime achievement,” she writes of one patient, “because if I don’t, nobody will.” There’s not much linking the chapters, but the opening and closing of the book, together with a work outing in the middle, provide valuable connective tissue and tell us more about the chiropodist herself. This is a book full of charm and love, making substance from small stories.
The Trees by Percival Everett
Influx Press, £9.99
After Paradais and Love Novel (see below), The Trees will cheer you up. If you didn’t read it when it was deservedly shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, do so now. This blackest of comedies is a satire on race in the United States, featuring what appears to be a serial killer who targets racists in revenge for the 1955 lynching of the black teenager Emmett Till. The killer also detaches the victims’ testicles.
The detectives investigating are treated with suspicion by locals, in a story driven by Everett’s trademark silliness in everything from character names (Cad Fondle, Hickory Spit, Helvetica Quip) to dialogue. “What’s your dog’s name?” “Oh, he ain’t got no name.” “Why’s that?” “I don’t like names.” “How do you call it?” “Call it?”
The Trees is enormous fun, and valuable for its insistence that horrible things are not trivialised by being included in a comic narrative. It is not perfect: in the final third, the reader gets the distinct impression that Everett is making it up as he goes along. But it’s a hell of a ride.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Fourth Estate, £9.99
It’s impossible to sum up Anthony Doerr’s centuries-spanning novel in 200 words, so I’ll let him do it: this is a “literary sci-fi mystery young adult historical morality novel”. It wears its gargantuan ambition on its 592-page sleeve: centred on a (fictional) lost Greek prose tale about a utopian city in the sky, Cloud Cuckoo Land covers three eras. There’s a children’s play rehearsal in present-day Idaho, interrupted by a radicalised bomber (the strongest section); there’s a girl travelling on a spacecraft 100 years from now to find a new planet away from the climate-destroyed Earth (the weakest); and there’s a teenager in 15th-century Constantinople during the Ottoman siege of the city.
Part of the pleasure is watching Doerr assemble his story bit by bit and wondering how it’s all going to connect. And it’s a blast and a breeze, despite its length. But I did detect a degree of cynicism in the approach: the “young adult” element of Doerr’s description might be most relevant, because the book feels written to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, with something for everyone. It even adopts, in its short scenes, the fast-cut grammar of blockbuster movies – all delivered in a breathless present tense. But overall this is an admirable and likable book.
Paradais by Fernanda Melchor
Translated by Sophie Hughes
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £10.99
Fernanda Melchor’s first book to appear in English, Hurricane Season, was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2021. Fans of that book will find its boxes ticked here, at half the length – though given the gruesome nature of the content in both books, that could be a relief or just an intensification of the experience.
Paradais is a two-hander between Franco (known as “fatboy”), the child of wealthy residents of a gated community in Mexico called Paradise, and Polo (Leopoldo to his mother), who’s working there as a gardener. The two spark off one another as fatboy obsesses over neighbour Señora Marian (stealing her underwear and sniffing it is just the beginning), and Polo listens while he drinks the alcohol his friend provides.
This is a hard book to read, first because the long sentences and paragraphs make it easy to become disoriented, and second because they contain such revolting material. In both senses, there’s nowhere to get off once you get going. There’s an air of disgust everywhere: in fatboy’s “gelatinous body”, in Polo’s misogynistic view of Senora Marian, “a decent piece of ass who did a reasonable job of disguising her mileage”.
There’s not much surprise in where all this is heading, in its claustrophobic, grotesque and relentless way. Paradais is powerful and full of life, even if it’s the sort of life you wouldn’t want to live.
Love Novel by Ivana Sajko
Translated by Mima Simić
V&Q Books, £11.99
Every litter needs a runt, and Love Novel is this year’s. It seems to me that it represents everything that gives translated fiction a bad name: a relentlessly internal narrative, no plot to speak of and muddy prose. (“You arrived there soaring, burning with reformist zeal, like a bird with a two-metre wingspan and ten grams of brain clad in down, which – surprisingly – failed to signal to you that you’d land on a branch you’d already sawn off, or rather, that you’d fallen into a grave you’d dug yourself.”)
The story is about a Croatian couple with a baby – he’s a writer, she’s an actor – and set amid anti-capitalist protests. They argue a lot and not much else happens, though it does liven up a bit (or at least become more vigorously depressing) in the scenes set after the birth of their child. And by way of even-handedness, at least both characters are equally uninteresting. But the book’s appearance on the shortlist, from a longlist that featured terrific books by Claire Keegan, Sang Young Park, Colm Tóibín, Geetanjali Shree and Graeme Macrae Burnet (to name a few), is a mystery.
The winner of this year’s Dublin Literary Award will be announced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Caroline Conroy, on Thursday, May 25th, as part of International Literature Festival Dublin