A library of neglected gems: books that deserve to be better read

Roy Foster, Emilie Pine, Lucy Caldwell, Kit de Waal and 11 other writers on books that deserve better

Roy Foster

The Chateau by William Maxwell (1961)
It is 1948. A newly married American couple arrive in a rundown rural chateau as paying guests. They improve their French, but have much else to learn, not least about themselves. William Maxwell's The Chateau is pervaded by a sense of unsettlement, well-meaning assumptions thrown awry, subtle but deep-rooted cultural confusion, and the hidden scars of postwar French life. At the end, an audacious swerve in the narration supplies an elegiac conclusion. Maxwell was a legendary New Yorker editor, friend and mentor to many writers; his own beautiful but underrated fiction can compete with the best of them.
Historian Roy Foster's latest work is On Seamus Heaney (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Emilie Pine

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)
It is not her first novel, nor the first novel of hers I read. It perhaps isn't her best novel, and it definitely isn't her easiest. But The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard is the book I recommend more than any other. Who could not love a novel that begins,"By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation"?

The plot is simple – the intertwined lives of two sisters – and covers loss, discovery and a satisfyingly gutsy final twist. Yet it is not the plot that really recommends this novel, but the grace and surprise of Hazzard's storytelling. It demands something of its reader, and it repays you with the joy of language that makes you notice the world again.
Emilie Pine is professor of modern drama at UCD. Her first novel, Ruth & Pen, will be published in May.

Lucy Caldwell

Antigone by Jean Anouilh (1944)
One of the most illuminating books for our time must be the playtext of Jean Anouilh's Antigone, based on the version of the play by Sophocles, and translated by Lewis Galantière. Mine is a 1960s Methuen edition, which I first came across on the bookshelves of my drama teacher, Daphne Moore, aged 15. I loved it so much I never gave it back. It's a theft I still don't feel guilty for: even as a teenager, I felt it belonged to me. Anouilh's Antigone is one of those rare pieces of writing whose tone, sensibility, essence somehow forms part of the fabric of you.


I still have shivers up my spine at the opening: the Chorus, played in the first English-language production by Olivier, begins with a world-weary, casual, “Well, here we are.” These people, he tells us, gesturing at the actors around him, are about to act out the story of Antigone. The thin little creature, dark-haired and intense, is thinking that as soon as he finishes speaking she must burst forth as the one who will rise alone against her uncle, the King. “Another thing she is thinking,” he says, “is this: she is going to die. Antigone is young. She would much rather live than die. But there is no help for it. When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers through to the end.”

People poised on the brink between their hitherto quotidian world and the tragedy to come. Wild new inhuman forces whirling through the world, forcing so many into roles they never imagined they'd have to play, and now must play to the end. It has been impossible to think of this play, recently, without thinking of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the actor turned president, now rising to play the role of his life.
Lucy Caldwell's latest novel is These Days

Kit de Waal

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton (1926)
This novel, set in an English boarding house in the 1920s, is a study in seediness. With a cast of misfits, bores and egotists, it's dark and funny but underneath all of it is Patrick Hamilton's acute observations on human behaviour and thwarted desire. He is, after all, the man who wrote Gaslight, from which we get the term gaslighting – psychological manipulation and cruelty – and he was himself no stranger to loneliness and self-doubt, drinking himself to death at 58. It sounds like a bleak read but it's not. It's an unsentimental glimpse into a world that's utterly disappeared but characters we can still recognise today.
Kit de Waal's memoir Without Warning and Only Sometimes is to be published in August

Brian Dillon

The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante (1998)
"The byline switcheroo continues apace," Lucy Sante wrote recently about her essay collection Kill All Your Darlings. The name on the cover had gone from Luc to Lucy in the wake of her gender transition. Sante is an incomparable cultural critic and historian, whether writing about photography, music, underground New York or bohemian Paris. The Factory of Facts is a memoir, and much more, about her Belgian family's stop-start efforts to become American. It begins with a litany of competing backstories – which one is the real Sante origin tale? A beautiful, complex, neglected book that deserves a byline switcheroo.
Brian Dillon's latest book is Suppose a Sentence

Kathleen MacMahon

The Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche (1927-1960)
The 16 paperback volumes of the Jalna series sat on the bookshelves that lined the stairs of my mother's childhood home. I first read them aged 10 and have come back to them countless times since for comfort. The multi-generational story of a Canadian family living on the shores of Lake Ontario, they engendered in me a lifelong passion for family sagas with elaborate family trees. To know a fictional family as well as your own seems to me the ultimate pleasure as a reader. To create such a family, the ultimate challenge as a writer.
Kathleen MacMahon's latest novel is Nothing But Blue Sky

Edel Coffey

Talking to Women by Nell Dunn (1965)
This collection was first published in 1965, in between Dunn's two influential works Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967). The interviewees include the artist Pauline Boty and writers Ann Quin and Edna O'Brien amongst others, and discuss everything from sex to motherhood to work in illuminating detail and candour. Some of the women were dead within a year, and some are still burning brightly nearly 60 years on. I was utterly changed by this book, and the small publisher Silver Press has done a public service by reprinting it for the first time since it was published.
Edel Coffey's debut novel is Breaking Point

Sarah Gilmartin

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
The English author Elizabeth Taylor, whose stories were frequently published in the New Yorker, has an impressive back catalogue that deserves wider recognition. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is my favourite, a novel about a group of elderly people watching the days tick down in a kind of halfway hotel in London. It's funny, compassionate and searing on the subject of loneliness in later life. In the same vein, Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer, reissued in 2020 by Daunt Press, is a fine collection of stories that captures the tensions of family life with ferocious precision. Lastly, Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell is an unforgettable portrait of denial and alienation in a seemingly perfect marriage in 1930s America.
Sarah Gilmartin's debut novel is Dinner Party

Neil Hegarty

Berg by Ann Quin (1964)
"A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . ." Oedipally primed, he moves into dour seaside lodgings next door to his target, paces "the narrow strip of carpet between wardrobe and bed", and plots, and waits. Berg was Ann Quin's debut novel: anarchic, tense, ambitious, and teeming with violence, it stands as a key work of postwar, avant-garde British fiction. Although reissued by independent publisher And Other Stories in 2019, Berg – and Quin's entire oeuvre – remain less widely known than they deserve.
Neil Hegarty's latest book is The Jewel

Bernard MacLaverty

A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch (1950)
For a year or so I kept a diary selection on my bathroom shelf. One day I read a terrific entry by a young Englishman called Denton Welch. It had style along with detail and wit; it had such a passionately true voice. Some weeks later I read another terrific entry, only to discover it was the same Denton Welch. So I searched him out in the second-hand bookshops and over the years have bought most of what he wrote in his all-too-short life. You can start now with his last book A Voice Through a Cloud.
Bernard MacLaverty's latest book is Blank Pages

Nuala O’Connor

The Rack by AE Ellis (1958)
The Rack is the only novel by British writer Derek Lindsay, writing as AE Ellis. I read it in my early 20s and was both devastated and uplifted by it. Set in a sanatorium in Switzerland, it's about Paul Davenant, who is suffering with TB and hoping for a cure. The treatments and tests at the clinic are experimental and horrendous, and Davenant begins to realise his future is not certain. Still, he recognises the absurdities of his situation and even finds love among all the despair. Not an easy read, but an excellent examination of anguish and hope.
Nuala O'Connor's latest book is Nora, this year's One Dublin One Book

Kevin Power

Duluth by Gore Vidal (1983)
Gore Vidal's historical novels, like Lincoln (1984), were bestsellers, and hardly count as neglected. But Vidal also published a series of what he called "inventions": satirical fantasies on apocalyptic themes. Messiah (1954), which parodies the origins of Christianity via the story of a Californian death cult, is good; Kalki (1978), with its eerie vision of a depopulated planet, is memorable. But Duluth is the neglected classic. A metafictional soap opera about the not-quite-real city of Duluth, Minnesota, which is also America itself, Duluth is a work of camp genius, a sequence of superbly catty jokes about everything: TV, racism, police brutality, poststructuralism, science fiction, sex . . . Naturally, it has never achieved literary respectability – because how could a serious book be made up of jokes?
Kevin Power's latest book is The Written World

Fintan O’Toole

Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki (1914)
I encountered Saki (HH Munro), who died in the first World War, at school. His thrilling tale of the triumph of a naughty boy, The Lumber Room, was on the English course. But I never got around to reading much more of him until much later. I was glad then that I hadn't – it was a delight to have all these dark, brittle, laconic stories to relish for the first time. The opening story begins with a reflection on the difference between children and adults when they imagine the existence of another world: "Children do that sort of thing successfully, but children are content to convince themselves, and do not vulgarise their beliefs by trying to convince other people." The sardonic wit goes on from there. The pages are so sharp you almost need gloves.
Fintan O'Toole's latest book is We Don't Know Ourselves

Ed O’Loughlin

Mafeking Road by Herman Charles Bosman (1947)
Bosman was arguably South Africa's greatest-ever writer of English prose, even though Afrikaans was his native tongue. His short but eventful life included a death sentence, later commuted, for shooting his stepbrother dead in a row. A stint as a teacher in the remote border district of Groot Marico inspired many of his short stories, which appear to poke gentle fun at the rustic white farmers and their slow, backward ways. But Bosman was a master at wrongfooting his readers by suddenly yet subtly switching the mood from satirical to tragic, as in the titular story of his most famous collection, Mafeking Road, published four years before his death at the age of 46.
Ed O'Loughlin's latest book is The Last Good Funeral of the Year.

Helen Cullen

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)
A bestseller in America when it was first published in 1924, this book was so far ahead of its time that it is truly remarkable. It offers what reads like a contemporary interrogation of family life where a mother and father are both trapped in traditional roles that oppress them. Evangeline is obsessively houseproud, frustrated and bored; Lester is miserable at his job. When a twist of fate forces them to swap roles, it is a revelation and the whole family blossoms. Deceptively profound, this novel is philosophical and yet pragmatic, capturing many of the issues families are still battling almost a century later.
Helen Cullen's latest book is The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually

Darran Anderson

Maxims by François de La Rochefoucauld (1665)
There's been a revival of interest in Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, which is welcome, as stoicism is a rock we might cling onto these days. La Rochefoucauld's Maxims is another. His advice on love, folly, integrity and deception is deeper than it initially seems. A 17th-century nobleman, La Rochefoucauld experienced a great deal – immersed in court intrigues, imprisoned in the Bastille and wounded in battles – and he had a keen eye for the differences between our actions, words, and motivations. Maxims has an unfair reputation as being a cynical text when it's more a case of, as Richard Thompson sang, "I'll be your friend, I'll tell you what's in store".
Darran Anderson's latest book is Inventory

Rónán Hession

The Twilight Years by Sawako Ariyoshi, tr Mildred Tahara
There is a wealth of translated twentieth century fiction by Japanese women that is in danger of falling out of print, and which these days can only be found in battered ex-library copies or cheap print-on-demand editions.

Among them is The Twilight Years by Sawako Ariyoshi, which sold over a million copies in Japan on publication in 1972, but which is less known in Mildred Tahara’s 1993 English translation.

It depicts the caring trap experienced by many women in midlife – minding children and supporting elderly parents – capturing the woman’s frustration and the guilt hangover that comes with confronting her own ambivalence.

The book remains relevant and is a neat capsule of attitudes towards women, the lived reality of dementia and the unsettling effect of personal and societal change.
Rónán Hession's latest novel is Panenka

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times