Books of 2018: writers pick their favourite novels and non-fiction
From Anna Burns’s Milkman to Diarmaid Ferriter's On the Edge, it’s been a strong year
The best reads of 2018 from Ireland and beyond
I really loved Otessa Moshfegh’s latest novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Set in New York at the turn of our so-far pretty missable century, the book tracks the heroic efforts of a young woman to spend as much time as possible unconscious to succumb – with the help of an insanely prescription-happy GP – to a year of what she calls “good strong American sleep”. The book is relentlessly dark and unspeakably funny, and Moshfegh is among the most acute contemporary diagnosticians of American malaise. As for non-fiction, Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning is one of the most gripping and revealing memoirs I’ve read in a long time. A controlled and artful exploration of absolute loss of control, an unsettling and at times very moving reconstruction of a period of serious mental illness, Mind on Fire is a beautiful book about a terrifying thing.
Mark O’Connell won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize for How to be a Machine
This has been the year of reading non-fiction and delighting in fresh editions of classic works. I knew He and I from an anthology I read way back when, but have been stunned anew by the grace and depth of Natalia Ginzberg’s collection about post-war Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis). I was also captured by Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women (featuring a standout interview with Edna O’Brien, worth the price of entry alone). Both of these books were first published decades ago, but then out of print, and so it is a great joy that Daunt Books and Silver Press have made them available to new readers. On my Christmas list this year? Having devoured the library copy, and renewed it more times than I should, I’m asking for The Modern Cook’s Year by Anna Jones.
Emilie Pine is the author of Notes to Self
Adam Smith by Jesse Norman is a wonderful biography. It liberates Smith from his caricature as the godfather of neoliberalism. While not the first work to do so, this book sparkles in relating the subtlety of his thought to the complexities of today. It makes the case for nuance at a time of dangerous simplicities. Lethal White by JK Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) sustained me during Budget 2019. It staggers a little bit under the weight of plot complexity, but the warmth and detail of the characters make for a really enjoyable addition to the Cormoran Strike detective series. Roller-Coaster is the second volume of a history of modern Europe by Ian Kershaw. It could not be more timely. An elegant overview of the grandeur of collective achievements and the dangers that erode their foundations.
Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform and is a regular Irish Times book reviewer
Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, set largely in Chicago during the Aids epidemic, is a beautiful giant of a book about fear, love, friendship and theft. Alissa Quart’s Squeezed, a series of investigations into just how impossible and cruel a place America has become – economically, culturally, socially – for too many people, is both staggering and entirely unsurprising, but powerfully conveyed. Emilie Pine’s Notes To Self has created a new territory for the Irish essay – about time the body showed up – and she doesn’t flinch. Nick Laird’s collection Feel Free marks his second year in a row to publish a brilliant book (his Modern Gods was the most underrated novel of 2017), which is just showing off, so just as well it’s full of gorgeous, masterful poems.
Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace and Tender
The poems in Derek Mahon’s Against the Clock have his signature elegance, irony and melancholy; they also display a new lightness, as though he has come to accept the world in terms that are rooted and visionary, open to suggestion and rich with memory and knowledge. Over the past decade, a number of groundbreaking books have appeared on Oscar Wilde. These include an annotated Oxford edition, with two volumes of Wilde’s journalism, Franny Moyle’s Constance, Emer O’Sullivan’s The Fall of the House of Wilde, and this year Matthew Sturgis’s Oscar: A Life, which is astute in its judgments and offers a sharp and detailed grasp of the period and an appreciation of Wilde’s ambiguities. Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is the story of her marriage to the folklorist Bo Almqvist and an exploration of her grief after his death. It is a precise and honest self-portrait, carefully crafted, reticent and then revealing, but also absorbing and moving.
Colm Tóibín’s latest book is Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce
Deborah Levy called her unconventional memoir of parenthood, the economics of art and post-divorce, a “living autobiography”. The Cost of Living is intelligent, comic and poetic. A very different memoir – of mental illness and homelessness – by Arnold Thomas Fanning is both gripping and upsetting. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara’s obsessive pursuit of the Golden State serial killer was utterly compulsive (but not to be read at night). Its fictional neighbour is Liz Nugent’s unsettling Skin Deep. Feel Free, Zadie Smith’s incredible essays on everything from libraries to family stopped me in my tracks. Sarah Manguso’s life fragments 300 Arguments and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary were finally published here (hurrah), while Olivia Sudjic’s excellent Exposure examines what writing about the self means for women, referencing Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk. New poetry collection highlights: Hannah Sullivan, Colm Keegan, Amy Key, Lianne O’Sullivan and Doireann Ni Ghríofa. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado was the short story collection of the year. Over Christmas I’m diving into The Stinging Fly’s 20th anniversary anthology, Winter Papers and as much Olga Tokarczuk as is possible.
Sinéad Gleeson’s debut essay collection, Constellations, will be published next spring
Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill conjures up 18th-century New York with intriguing detail and scrupulous panache; as an evocation of colonial America it replaces John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, of blessed memory. Spufford’s hero epitomises a beguiling blend of good intentions and bad luck, as in many 19th-century novels. David Fitzpatrick’s brilliant and beguiling Ernest Blythe in Ulster: The Making of a Double Agent? portrays a world of theatricality, disguises and doppelgängers, which also suggests a character in a novel: Blythe’s simultaneous membership of the IRB and an Orange Lodge remains an intriguing conundrum, and the world of young northern revolutionaries receives much-needed illumination. More theatre in Christopher Fitz-Simon’s vividly entertaining Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie, full of wonderful and gossipy insights into the world of 20th-century drama, jam-making in Co Monaghan and the complex (and not uncontroversial) gestation of the Annaghmakerrig artists’ centre that bears Guthrie’s name.
Roy Foster’s latest book is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890–1923
I admired Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room for its intelligence and refusal to resort to easy moralising. I enjoyed Ottessa’s Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its wildness and pitch-black, icy humour. Rachel Cusk delivered, unsurprisingly, in Kudos, the final book in her Outline trilogy. In Irish fiction, I was drawn to the depth and soul of Wendy Erskine’s characters in her debut story collection Sweet Home. I felt similarly about Danny Denton’s The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow. I felt understood reading Dan Fox’s Limbo, a book-length essay for the unsteady and unsure among us. I was lucky enough to hear Sophie Collins read from her poetry collection, Who Is Mary Sue? and it remained with me. Lorrie Moore’s essay collection See What Can Be Done was my non-fiction favourite of the year. She maintains her boundless curiosity, energy and wit.
Nicole Flattery’s debut short story collection, Show Them a Good Time, will be published in February
David Lynch’s Room To Dream, a memoir/biography worked up with Kristine McKenna, is eccentric, addictive and inspiring. It traces the filmmaker’s life and artistic passage but, as ever with Lynch, it plays with the form of the project, too – straight biographical chapters alternate with his own chirpy and inimitable interpretation of events. In graphic fiction, I was haunted by Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and by Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying:Six Stories. Somehow the pictorial narrative seems to have the greatest purchase on the defining melancholia of our era. Lucia Berlin’s Welcome Home comes sadly in fragments only – the memoir was incomplete when she died. But everything that elevates her short fiction to the peaks of greatness is evident too in the pages documenting her peripatetic early life and her many trials. Her sentences have a smokiness and sad glamour to them; she evokes the many places of her life so memorably, so bluesily. George Saunders’s Fox 8 is a deceptive little crittur – it begins as the brightest of fables but then carries us briskly to the pits of bleakness. It reminds us of the skill of Saunders’s phenomenal ear, and of his great, enduring kindness as a storyteller.
Kevin Barry’s latest novel Beatlebone won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize
Kit de Waal
I’m obsessed with audiobooks; best this year is A Spy and a Traitor by Ben Macintyre, read by the author – nonfiction but reads like the best thriller. Anna Burns’s Milkman is also perfectly rendered by Bríd Brennan and puts a stop to all those who say it’s difficult to read. Two books stand out; Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City; a multinarrated, street-level slice of London. Spread over two days of race riots, these are voices we don’t hear enough of. Visceral and true. In Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, we slip into the skin of four wounded lives, so real it’s like we know these people, really know them. But then, we are in the hands of a master. If I can slip in a cheat, I’ve had a sneak read of Anne Griffin’s When All Is Said, which will be published next year. Look out for it. Wonderful.
Kit de Waal’s latest novel is The Trick to Time
Ciarán Carty’s The Republic of Elsewhere is a fascinating collection of interviews with writers. Anyone interested in literature would find it a pleasurable and revealing read. I loved Rob Doyle’s anthology, The Other Irish Tradition, for its vividness and range. Emilie Pine’s really remarkable Notes to Self opens new territory for Irish nonfiction writing, as, in a different way, does Arnold Thomas Fanning’s wonderful Mind on Fire. This year, I read all the novels and short stories of an English writer whose work I love, Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 1975. Her gasp-inducing Angel is dark and funny. I found Donal Ryan’s novel From a Low and Quiet Sea haunting and its voices utterly persuasive. Melatu Uche Okorie’s This Hostel Life marks the arrival of a powerful storyteller with news of what’s been going on in one of the hidden Irelands. In poetry, I found myself coming back to two collections: John Kelly’s Notions and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Lies.
Joseph O’Connor’s new novel Shadowplay will be published next June
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan made me laugh and cry and forced me to look strangers in the eye. Kit de Waal’s A Trick to Time is a beautifully told love story of an Irish immigrant in Birmingham at the time of the IRA bombings. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner is a hammer-blow look at the sleazy side of life in San Francisco, and Californian women’s prisons. I will never jaywalk again. I thoroughly enjoyed Graham Norton’s A Keeper, way darker than I expected with a harrowing finish. Her Name was Rose by Claire Allan is a page-turning thriller set in Derry and The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard about the former girlfriend of a serial killer is a fantastic read. The Secrets of Primrose Square by Claudia Carroll is her best yet and A Thousand Roads Home by Carmel Harrington is the story of homelessness and family we all need to read. In nonfiction, Matchstick Man by Julia Kelly is a searingly honest account of an ill-fated relationship, and Mind on Fire by Arnold Fanning is a shocking account of the author’s mental breakdown and psychotic episodes.
Liz Nugent’s latest novel is Skin Deep
The Cambridge History of Ireland in four volumes, edited by Tom Bartlett, is not something to be packed for holidays but it is a collective scholarly endeavour by 100 contributors to be applauded and stocked by any library that takes Irish history seriously, covering the Irish experience from the year 600 to the present and bursting with provocative, intelligent analysis and accessible narratives. The volumes continue a tradition of historians collectively stocktaking, distilling and pronouncing on the current state of their areas of expertise. Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea is beautifully bleak and characterised by his remarkable ability to write about grief and common humanities. Paul Rouse’s The Hurlers marries forensic historical research of the cultural and political contexts for the emergence of modern hurling with a polished style and storytelling ability that is rare among historians. John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky is entertainingly acidic and compelling in its depiction of bitchiness, megalomania and insecurities in the literary world.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s latest book is On the Edge
Can book titles foretell the spirit of an age? If so, things are looking up: two new books with “bad” in the title herald a delicious reversion in an age of virtue signalling. For “bad” substitute “Badass” and you have the intention. In Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, Dangerous, three flamboyant fathers – Joyce’s, Wilde’s, Yeats’s – are exhumed to show how familial flaws, whether repelled, embraced or transcended, direct the creative process. The badasses may be in a minority in Marian Broderick’s delicious directory of 36 fascinating Irish women, Bold, Brilliant and Bad – and the oldest profession the only outlet for much entrepreneurialism – but their stories tower. It’s worth reading for the tale of poet Laetitia Pilkington, shamefully described by Jonathan Swift as “the most profligate whore in two kingdoms”. Women poets may have a better time of it now but Anne Haverty’s A Break in the Journey is a work of survival and insight. Like Rape, a new collection of essays by the great badass herself, Germaine Greer. A must-read for post #MeToo generations
Anne Harris is a former editor of the Sunday Independent
Interleaved with reflections on anatomy and medical imaging, the extraordinary Sight by Jessie Greengrass was an early standout, balancing forensic and visceral insights as its unnamed narrator contemplates the deep bodily transformations wrought by her mother’s recent death and her own pregnancy. It was followed by Amy Sackville’s Painter to the King, which observes the rise of Velázquez at the court of Philip IV, conjuring both his masterpieces and their subjects in meticulous and suitably ravishing prose. Unless we’re going to leave it vacant, now that we have run out of male octogenarians, the office of greatest living American novelist ought surely to be assumed by Elizabeth Strout. A sequel of sorts to the quietly magnificent My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible manages to surpass it and makes her claim uncontestable. A particular highlight was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, a beautiful eulogy to a lost England that subverts its own seductiveness to warn of the dark potency of an illusory past in times of turmoil.
Paraic O’Donnell’s latest novel is The House on Vesper Sands
On the Edge, Diarmaid Ferriter’s unique book abut Ireland’s offshore islands, is a treasure trove of new research on the economies, cultures, survival strategies, evacuations and extraordinary people who inhabited places held up to us as the cradle of Gaelic civilisation, but treated very badly by the state which so eulogised them. Now We Can Talk Openly About Men, by Martina Evans, is a rich poetic contribution to our forthcoming interrogation of the War of independence, two intense and riveting dramatic monologues by women affected by the burning of Mallow in 1920, and the malaise of the new state in 1924. Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, Colm Tóibín’s acute, entertaining and insightful essays on three fathers of Irish literary figures – Wilde, Yeats and Joyce – with a luminous memoir on his own early experience of Dublin, the city they inhabited.
Catriona Crowe is former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland
This year was a great year for me and books. I put down the TV remote in January and committed to reading more and it’s a habit I’ll definitely keep. Among my top three books this year was Just The Funny Parts by Nell Scovell, a memoir from one of the most prolific female writers of American TV. She’s written for The Simpsons, NCIS, The Late Show and she created Sabrina The Teenage Witch. It’s a hilarious but also deeply sad insight into what TV land is like for female writers. I read it in one sitting. Clean by Juno Dawson is a young-adult fiction book about a group of kids in their late teens who are all in a detox centre for one addiction or another. It’s charming and gritty with intelligently written, nuanced characters and dialogue. It’s one of those books you steal sentences from to use on your friends when you need a sassy comeback. The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder – I love Snyder’s political commentary books. His last book, On Tyranny, was one of my 2017 picks. In Unfreedom he looks at the extent and pervasiveness of Russian interference in some of the largest political campaigns across the globe. It’s a frightening but blisteringly good indictment of the times we live in.
Stefanie Preissner is the creator of RTÉ series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. Her second book, No. It’s a Full Sentence, is out next May
Rachel Cusk brought her stunning trilogy to an exalted close with Kudos. This is the best book I have read for years – honest, philosophical, riveting and very funny. Also from Faber, Don Paterson’s completed aphorisms trilogy – three books collected under the title, The Fall at Home: New and Collected Aphorisms. Paterson’s deliciously dour nuggets of bitter wisdom are precise and grimly hilarious. Sally Rooney’s Normal People was a treat also; she is a natural, a rare true novelist. More genuine wit in Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy: a fine story collection, set memorably in a cloudy, mercurial and unsettlingly sectarian Belfast. Last but not least, James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a resonant, moving pilgrimage of great beauty, including a fabulous flash of Harpur’s signature wry humour in his outstanding poem, Portora Royal.
Martina Evans’s latest poetry collection is Now We Can Talk Openly About Men
My choice to win the Man Booker Prize was Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, an extended narrative poem, or verse novel, if you prefer, of great artistic and emotional power, set in the late 1940s and chronicling the return from war of a damaged young Newfoundlander, who finds his way to Hollywood and inevitable destruction. Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is poetic too, in its own way. Rovelli is the finest contemporary explainer to lay ears of the mind-boggling intricacies of modern physics, and this latest, short book burns with the cool intensity of a clear night sky. Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, a trio of essays on the fathers of Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce, is shrewd, elegant and illuminating. The section on John B Yeats, one of the great letter-writers, is particularly fine, and a generous tribute to a generous, if ever importunate, parent.
John Banville’s latest novel is Mrs Osmond
I hesitate when it comes to historical novels, and yet at the same time I’m drawn to fiction that attempts to commingle a true story from the past with some aspect of contemporary experience. My book of the year is Sight by Jessie Greengrass, which places Sigmund and Anna Freud, John Hunter (an 18th-century surgeon and anatomist) and Wilhelm Röntgen (who invented the x-ray) into the life of a woman who is both pregnant and in grieving for her mother. Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is a similar and similarly brilliant kind of hybrid species, examining, in fragments, the history of polar exploration. I’m also drawn to novels of the surreal-yet-just-about-believable species. The Town by Shaun Prescott is absurd, yet almost convincing. Census by Jesse Ball is a much more sensitive, successful example – somehow both a road movie and a celebration of the life of his big brother.
Sara Baume’s latest novel is A Line Made By Walking
Ever since I reviewed Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light it’s been circling in my head. It creates something mysterious and shifting from clear crystalline language, telling the story of a mother and her daughter in the year after her divorce. When did I last read a book of poetry cover to cover? At school, probably. It helps when they’re so good you can’t stop. Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a collection of three long poems about youth, time, and the only end of age. It is funny, affecting, smart, readable and wears its influences from Didion to Eliot lightly. I first saw Natalia Ginzburg mentioned alongside Sebald and Coetzee. Then I heard Zadie Smith and Maggie Nelson were fans. Finally I read The Little Virtues, her collection of essays – simply put pieces on everyday life, family, friends and country – and saw that they were all right.
John Self is a Belfast-based critic
This year hit the ground running with Danny Denton’s debut novel The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, which was inventive, compassionate and delightfully mad. I recall leaving a party early so that I could get back to reading it, the titular kid being the most compelling sort of dote. Shaun Prescott’s The Town – in which a writer moves to the outback to research the phenomenon of disappearing towns – is mournful, odd and unsettling and therefore right up my street. I hugely enjoyed Cethan Leahy’s sensitive but witty YA debut Tuesdays Are Just As Bad, about a teenager haunted by his own ghost after a suicide attempt. But 2018 was Milkman’s year. Burns’s Booker win was the most welcome news, for Milkman is an extraordinary achievement, packed with sentences I read aloud with the great pleasure of not knowing how on earth such gorgeous things were crafted.
Lisa McInerney’s second novel, The Blood Miracles, was joint winner of the 2018 RSL Encore Award
The most thrilling literary event of the year is the unexpected late harvest of marvellous poems from Derek Mahon, Against the Clock. The clock that’s ticking is both his own allotted time on earth and our unrelenting destruction of the Earth itself. But he is wonderfully undefeated, finding an unsentimental solace wherever he can and turning it to wit, wisdom and beauty. There is no rage against the dying of the light because his own light is very much on. We need consolation in our world and I’ve found myself turning again and again to these profoundly consoling poems. Consolation is all the more needed after reading Timothy Snyder’s superbly erudite and illuminating exploration of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to undermine democracy, The Road to Unfreedom. Sally Rooney’s Normal People confirms her fully-formed emergence as a novelist of extraordinary poise and emotional subtlety and all the praise for Anna Burns’s mesmerising Milkman is fully earned.
Fintan O’Toole is an Irish Times columnist. His latest book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
Milkman by Anna Burns is undoubtedly my book of the year. It surprised me to hear reviewers cite it as difficult; for me the only challenge came with the oftentimes chilling cruelty of the protagonist’s fractured existence and enduring the gut-wrenching blows which her narrative delivered. The story of “the girl who walks and reads” is utterly compelling with stylish, confident, artistic execution. It really is a triumph and so deserving of the Man-Booker win and all the readers which that accolade should attract. Another major prizewinner that knocked my socks off this year was Less by Andrew Sean Greer: a bittersweet comedy of the literary world that I devoured in one blissful sitting. In non-fiction, Brett Anderson’s memoir Coal Black Morning recounting his life before Suede and the incredible Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living offered inspirational insights that remained percolating in my mind long after reading. Finally, for poetry lovers, I can’t recommend John Kelly’s collection, Notions, enough.
Helen Cullen’s debut novel is The Lost Letters of William Woolf
I was deeply moved by Louise O’Neill’s third novel Almost Love, a compulsive account of the trauma that a person can feel following the breakdown of a relationship. Critics focused unfairly on the central character’s lack of likability, as if novels written by women should feature light-hearted, feather-brained protagonists who simply laugh off the foibles of abusive men, while ignoring her brutal authenticity. This is a dark literary novel by one of our most uncompromising writers. I also admired Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, which featured an elderly woman building a new life when she travels to her son’s ex-girlfriend’s home to care for her in the wake of a shooting, and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, the third in a trilogy of novels about a writer, Faye, and her interactions with the world. Following Outline and Transit, Cusk has created one of the most introspective and satisfying sequences of novels in many years.
John Boyne’s latest novel is A Ladder to the Sky
Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina is a powerful state of the nation exploration of an increasingly polarised US where everything becomes black and white. Here nuance is restored via subdued blue and grey panels that illustrate how humanity itself is tamped down by paranoia and fear. Maeve in America, by Maeve Higgins, is wise, witty and humming with honesty – essays that zip right to the heart of the zeitgeist. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry examines toxic masculinity with huge intelligence and no little wit. This is chilling, heartbreaking and hilarious and should be a compulsory text in all schools. In Eclipsed, comedian Dominic Holland finds out that his son Tom is Spider-Man and there follows a very funny reflection on being overshadowed by one’s offspring combined with a bracingly honest look behind the curtain at stand-up comedy. The Other Irish Tradition, edited by Rob Doyle, is a super selection of writings of a more experimental bent – excellent all round but particularly in its presentation of lesser-known Irish writers of superlative quality. Highly recommended.
Kevin Gildea is a comedian and a critic