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Best debuts of 2019: despite perennial difficulties, talent has emerged

A look at the brightest debuts and collections from this year's emerging authors

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Where have all the writers gone? This year was marked by notable Irish debut novels from an engineer, civil servant and publisher, which tells us much about the earning power of writers in Ireland today.

This was backed up by research from Words Ireland, published in September, that gave a number of grim statistics on the realities of writing as a profession. The median annual income of a professional writer stands at €11,840. Unsurprisingly, this means that only 13.7 per cent of Irish writers earn their income solely from writing, a significant drop since 2005 when 40 per cent of writers were able to rely on their books alone.

Some less depressing statistics: Ireland has four Nobel Laureates, the highest per capita of any country by a multiple of three; 15 million books are sold here a year, with an estimated value of €175 million; in the last six years, Ireland has had five shortlistings and two winners of the prestigious international Goldsmiths Prize; there have been four Irish winners of the Dublin Impac Award, the world’s richest prize for fiction; and five Irish-born winners of the Booker.

In a country that markets itself as literary, both at home and abroad, the starkest figure of all in the Words Ireland research was the drop in Government funding to the Arts Council in the last decade. A budget of €84.6 million in 2008 fell to €75 million in 2019. An increase of €5 million in this year's budget was welcomed by the Arts Council, though many within the industry felt it was too small – and a long way off the Government's commitment to double spending by 2023.

And yet the books keep coming. This year was a solid one for Irish debuts. Civil servant Rónán Hession's Leonard and Hungry Paul gives us a charming tale about the ordinary lives of two likeable misfits. Publisher Sarah-Davis Goff's Last Ones Left Alive is an inventive, vividly realised feminist dystopia. Both novels were deservedly shortlisted for the newcomer category at this year's Irish Book Awards. On the night, the gong went to former Waterstones bookseller Anne Griffin for When All is Said and Done, a moving, multilayered story about a man looking back on the seminal relationships of his life.

Two notable short story debuts this year were from Irish female authors

The engineer, meanwhile, was Adrian Duncan with Love Notes from a German Building Site, a reflective, beautifully-paced novel about work, relationships and life as an immigrant. Duncan's second book will be published next March by Lilliput Press, a publisher with a strong back catalogue of Irish debuts, among them Elske Rahill, Donal Ryan, Rob Doyle and the re-issue of Rosita Sweetman's Fathers Come First.

Two notable short story debuts this year were from Irish female authors, Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery (The Stinging Fly), which was also nominated for an Irish Book Award, and Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne (Banshee Press). Flattery's collection is fast paced, funny, frequently surreal, and written in masterful prose. Paris Syndrome burns slower, though no less effectively, as we follow its young female narrators into all manner of vibrant scenarios. Another Irish author in this vein is Sue Rainsford, whose debut novel Follow Me to Ground (first published by New Island) was brought to a wider audience by Doubleday this year. Mixing elements of horror, fairytale and myth, the book is a most unusual exploration of desire and the female body.

All three books hit the sweet spot of page-turning, literary novels

Other Irish debuts that deserve a mention include David Brennan's topsy-turvy, enjoyable Upperdown, and Sophie White's whip-smart Instagram takedown Filter This. Last from the home front this year is a cracker of a book, Jan Carson's second novel The Fire Starters, a hugely engaging tale about the legacy of violence in east Belfast that is a sure-fire hit for a stocking filler.

The standout international debuts this year were Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse, Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. All three books hit the sweet spot of page-turning, literary novels. Chung gives a powerful view of the world of mathematics from the perspective of a female professor. Henstra tackles campus rape culture in her impressive debut, published in the UK and Ireland by Tramp Press. Brodesser-Akner tells the story of a messy marriage and divorce in a moneyed, New York society. Another complicated marriage, that of timid newlyweds in 1920s America, is beautifully showcased by Chip Creek in Cape May. The fevered trysts of college students are the focus of Kate Weinberg’s clever debut The Truants. Female relationships, meanwhile, are at the core of some excellent new fiction in Anna Hope’s Expectation, Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer, a riot of a novel set in Nigeria which earned a place on this year’s Booker longlist.

All in all, 2019 was a good year for debuts, particularly in Ireland, where hopefully the climate for emerging and established writers will get a little easier in the coming years.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts

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