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John McGahern Prize for debut Irish fiction 2023 shortlist revealed

Prof Shovlin said, ‘Five years feels something like maturity for the prize and we were delighted to see, once again, a very strong field’

Shortlisted authors Colin Walsh, Noel O'Regan and Michael Magee

The University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies has announced the shortlist for the fifth John McGahern Annual Book Prize, carrying an award of £5,000, for the best debut novel or short story collection by an Irish writer or writer resident in Ireland published in the year 2023. Nineteen entries were received, all of which have now been read and adjudicated upon by the shortlisting committee of Prof Dame Janet Beer, former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool; Frank Shovlin, professor of Irish literature, University of Liverpool; and Dr Eleanor Lybeck, senior lecturer in literature at the department of English and Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.

Prof Shovlin said: “Five years feels something like maturity for the prize and we were delighted to see, once again, a very strong field. Shortlisting was far from easy as there was such a range of quality submissions across both novels and short story collections. We look forward to seeing the final adjudication of our judge Colm Tóibín later this summer and welcoming the winner to read and receive their award at the Liverpool Literary Festival on the weekend of October 4th-6th.”

The three shortlisted books published in 2023 are Close to Home by Michael Magee (Hamish Hamilton); Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan (Granta); and Kala by Colin Walsh (Atlantic Books). Magee’s debut has already won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Nero Book Award for Debut Fiction and the 2023 Waterstones Irish Book of the Year. Walsh won Irish Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Prize and in 2019 he was named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. O’Regan was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Award and he has also won the Seán Dunne Young Writer Award and an Arts Council Next Generation Artist Award.

The shortlisting committee commented on each of the books:

The novel is a memorable evocation of post-Troubles Belfast and its painful metamorphosis.

Michael Magee’s Close to Home is the story of Sean, a lost, reflective man in his early twenties, recently returned to Belfast from studying for a degree in English literature at Liverpool. It is 2013 and the economy has collapsed. Work is hard to come by, friends are emigrating to Australia to try their luck. Sean, from a republican family in west Belfast, moves from dead-end job to dead-end job, working behind the bar in nightclubs, training as a barista, feeding himself through intricate shoplifting schemes. He assaults a lad at a snooty party, ends up in court and is lucky to avoid a custodial sentence in a system that is stacked against him.

Sentenced to 200 hours of community service, some of the strongest prose in the book comes around Sean’s work strimming grass in Milltown cemetery. In the background is an old friend Mairéad and the possibility of some sort of fulfilling, loving relationship, though a defining moment in the friendship never quite arrives. The book is at its best when dealing with behaviour among men, the grimy world of all-night drinking and cocaine parties and the horribly vivid comedowns that follow. A long, slow coming to consciousness of a young man struggling against unfair odds, the novel is a memorable evocation of post-Troubles Belfast and its painful metamorphosis.

Narrated by Micheál Burns, a Kerry man entering middle age who feels that he has “failed spectacularly at life”, Noel O’Regan’s Though the Bodies Fall is a remarkable effort towards telling an original story and capturing a place in time that might easily be overlooked. The characters are well-rounded and authentic, and their depiction generates a real sense of pathos. O’Regan also makes compelling decisions in terms of form and structure, without the novel ever feeling overtly or deliberately experimental. Indeed, there is nothing faddish in this book: it is entirely genuine.

Like all good writers, O’Regan looks long and hard at the world and notices its variegations, whether that be via the manner in which clouds change the colour of the sea or the ways in which a chiffchaff’s legs differ from those of a willow warbler. A book about duty and love, it will stay with you long after you have turned the final page.

Set over an intense five days in the summer of 2018, the book is a compelling mix of crime fiction with a meditation on what it is to be young. Photograph: Atlantic Books/PA

Colin Walsh’s Kala is set in Kinlough, a fairly thinly fictionalised version of Galway. The novel follows the interactions among a group of friends one of whose number, the eponymous Kala, has gone missing without trace several years earlier. Why she vanished and what became of her forms the central narrative arc of this page-turner, though the real strength of the book is in its portrait of youthful friendship and the questions it raises about why we grow apart as we mature. Set over an intense five days in the summer of 2018, the book is a compelling mix of crime fiction with a meditation on what it is to be young. Packed with an energy that carries the reader along toward its compelling denouement and keeps us fully invested in the fate of its carefully drawn characters, this is a novel of notable skill and pace.

Now in its fifth year, the award for best debut book published in 2019 went to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes from a German Building Site (The Lilliput Press), for 2020 to Hilary Fannin’s The Weight of Love (Doubleday), for 2021 to Louise Kennedy’s short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (Bloomsbury) and for 2022 to Aingeala Flannery’s novel The Amusements (Sandycove). All four previous winners continue to prosper with subsequent successes in the novel, essay and play forms: Fannin’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun has recently been winning plaudits at The Abbey; Kennedy’s Trespasses, her follow-up to the prize-winning short stories, became one of the most critically acclaimed Irish novels of recent years; and Duncan and Flannery recently collaborated on the stylish and intriguing collection of music essays You spin me round (PVA, 2024).

The prize was established to promote new Irish fiction and to celebrate the memory of one of the country’s greatest masters of prose fiction, John McGahern (1934-2006), whose final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, has recently been adapted for cinema with great success by Pat Collins and whose authorised biography Prof Shovlin is now writing under contract at Faber.

Entries are now being accepted for debut books of fiction published in 2024. Details are available on the Institute of Irish Studies website.