Books preview 2020: Our vision for the year ahead
What to look out for in Irish and international fiction, non-fiction and poetry
New titles for 2020 include works by Fintan O’Toole, Hilary Mantel and a debut from Naoise Dolan
Choice: There’s a lot of pressure on Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (W&N, April), which was acquired in a seven-way bidding war, but it more than lives up to the hype. Set in Hong Kong, and following the liaisons of an Irish TEFL teacher, an English banker and a half-Chinese, half-Singaporean lawyer, it teems with insight around class, race, language and sexuality. Likely to fill the Sally-Rooney-shaped hole in many readers’ lives.
Dolan isn’t the only debut novelist for whom, ahem, exciting times await, with Novel Fair-winner Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town [John Murray, February]), Hennessy-winner Rachel Donohue (The Temple House Vanishing [Corvus, February]), Susannah Dickey (Tennis Lessons [Doubleday, June]), Frances Macken (You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here [Oneworld, April]); and, in Young Adult, Helen Corcoran (Queen of Coin and Whispers [O’Brien, April]).
Laureate na nÓg, Sarah Crossan, will this year make her adult debut, with Here is the Beehive (Bloomsbury, August), a story about love and grief which will be a heart wrencher. Children’s authors Marita Conlon-McKenna and Eoin Colfer also move into adult fiction; The Hungry Road (Transworld, January), marking familiar territory for Conlon-McKenna as a famine-era epic, while Colfer’s Highfire (Jo Fletcher Books, January), is billed as a high-octane fantasy about a “vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon” – adulting at its best.
Bob Geldof’s Tales of Boomtown Glory (Faber, March) is an anthology of lyrics and commentary from Sir Bob, about “the words that gave me this life”.
Lest we get distracted by shiny new things, the stalwarts of Irish fiction are out in force. Anne Enright, the unofficial rock star of literary fiction, cements her stardom with Actress (Faber, March), about a young woman growing up in the shadow of her mother’s fame.
I have it on good authority that both Colm McCann and Maggie O’Farrell are on form with Apeirogon (Bloomsbury, February), and Hamnet (Tinder Press, March), respectively. Also worth a mention: Roddy Doyle, with Love (Jonathan Cape, June), Eimear McBride, with Strange Hotel (Faber, February) and Sebastian Barry, with his Days Without End sequel, A Thousand Moons (Faber, March).
No one does families like Marian Keyes and fans will be impatient to meet the Caseys, a glamorous bunch whose secrets begin to unravel after a careless remark at a birthday party (Grown Ups [Penguin, February]). Another reader favourite, Patricia Scanlan, brings The Liberation of Brigid Dunne (Simon & Schuster, March). And Kathleen MacMahon’s third novel Nothing But Blue Sky (Penguin Ireland, May) should be a tender story of love within marriage.
Scenes of a Graphic Nature (Virago, June) will be the second book by Caroline O’Donoghue – host of the podcast Sentimental Garbage, and champion of many authors thus. This story of a film-maker returning to her Cork roots looks original, as it grapples with themes such as Irishness and authenticity.
John Banville has many alter egos, with BW Black his new historical fiction pseudonym, and The Secret Guests (Penguin Ireland, February), will be a period drama set at the height of the Blitz. The story is based on a rumour that young princesses Margaret and Elizabeth were smuggled out of London during the bombings to hide out a crumbling stately home in Ireland. In October, Faber & Faber will publish Snow, the first of Banville’s crime novels to be published under his own name rather than Benjamin Black. It is a 1950s-set murder mystery which opens with the discovery of the body of a parish priest in a Big House in Wexford.
In crime, John Connolly’s Dirty South (Hodder & Stoughton, April) is an origins tale for his long-running series hero, Charlie Parker. Jo Spain’s Six Wicked Reasons (Quercus, January) is a thriller based on a family, a disappearance and “a tangled web of deceit”, and Liz Nugent’s Our Little Cruelties (Penguin Ireland, March) centres around three brothers, one of which has been killed, leaving the other two suspects.
Poets Doireann Ní Ghriofa and Elaine Feeney make prose debuts with A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp, April) and As You Were (Harvill Secker, March). Columnist of the year for 2019, Hilary Fannin (of this parish), makes her fiction debut with The Weight of Love (Penguin Ireland, March). In short fiction, Cathy Sweeney is hot on the coattails of her daughter, Lucy Sweeney Byrne, with her debut Modern Times (Stinging Fly, March). Keep your eye out, too, for Why the Moon Travels (Skein Press, autumn), a collection of folk tales by traveller activist Oein deBhairduin.
Conor O’Callaghan’s debut, Nothing on Earth, was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. His second, about a man driving a haulage lorry through France will be a story of “grief”, “shame” and “love” (We Are Not in the World [Doubleday, April]). Caoilinn Hughes’s literary career took off when she won both first and third prizes in the 2018 Moth Short Story Prize. Her debut, Orchid and the Wasp, won the Collyer Bristow Award. Her latest, The Wild Laughter (Oneworld, July) is set in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, and is a dark comedy on euthanasia.
Gaelgeoirí or collectors might add Beatha Phí (the translation of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi [Coiscéim), to their shelves. For the little ones, Mr Men comes to Ireland (Mr Men in Ireland [Egmont, February]), and for middle grades Shane Hegarty’s Boot: The Rusty Rescue (Hodder, February), follows the gorgeous first Boot novel, published this year.
Choice: Rob Doyle’s Threshold (Bloomsbury, January) has been roiling around in my head since I finished a proof of it. Part-essay collection, part-memoir, it recounts and philosophizes on the author’s encounters with hallucinogenic drugs. There’s an adage that good writing should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Dark, misanthropic, provocative; Doyle’s writing really “goes there”, and emerges triumphant.
Mark O’Connell last year became the first non-fiction author to win the Rooney Prize. His second book, Notes from an Apocalypse (Granta, April) looks to be a belter. It comprises interviews with people from all corners of the earth, each preparing for doomsday. Dr Tara Shine concerns herself with earthly matters in How to Save Your Planet (Simon & Schuster, April), while Roz Purcell proves plant-based cooking is more mainstream than ever, with No Fuss Vegan (Penguin Ireland, January). Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller, June) from 15-year-old Dara McAnulty, chronicles the life a young man with autism and his connection to wildlife in his Northern Irish hometown.
The Irish border is a charged place, not least in literature. Darran Anderson, and Séamus O’Reilly both bring personal insight with memoirs Inventory (Chatto & Windus, August), and Did ye Hear Mammy Died? (Fleet, June).
Gerald Dawe’s The Sound and the Shuttle (Irish Academic Press, January) will be an interesting essay collection on cultural belonging and Northern Protestantism. I’ll be the first to buy Lost, Found Remembered (Faber, March) by journalist Lyra McKee, who was tragically killed during riots in Derry this year.
John and Sally McKenna’s guides remind us of the beauty on our doorstep, and this year they bring out Wild Atlantic Way (Collins, March). Ruairí McKiernan’s Hitching for Hope (Chelsea Green, March) captures our country’s vibrancy, diversity and politics, through the author’s experiences hitchhiking around the island.
L’enfer, c’est le Brexit for Fintan O’Toole, with Three Years in Hell (Head of Zeus, April) – another sharp take on that interminable saga. Ok Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea (Penguin Ireland, June) might also sound like a Brexit book, but it’s actually Patrick Freyne’s debut essay collection. I have no doubt it will make me laugh, but the marketing copy promises a good cry, too.
Choice: Sinead Morrissey’s Selected Poems (Carcanet, April). From her 1996 debut There was Fire in Vancouver to her most recent On Balance, this collection frames, mid-career, the astonishing and evolving work of a master poet. One to keep on the bedside table.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz will be another 2020 standout – “an anthem of desire against erasure” – as will Sean Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire (Cape, Mach).
John McAuliffe’s The Kabul Olympics (Gallery, April) is a book of impossible places – from the title poem, to a plane taking off forever into Storm Doris, to the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing.
The Sundays of Eternity (Dedalus, February) Gerard Smyth’s tenth collection, plays a kind of “catch and throw” with the past, as does Michael Longley’s The Candlelight Master (Jonathan Cape, August) the twelfth collection by the beloved poet, and certainly one to be savoured.
Choice: “Oh my god,” I keep saying, to friends and family. “You have to read American Dirt.” Jeanine Cummins – born in Spain, husband from Mayo, neither a hurling stronghold, as Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh would say – knocks it out of the park with this gripping tale of dispossession and migration (Hachette, January). In 2017, a migrant died every 21 hours along the United States-Mexico border, and every urgent second of this book feels intensely, terrifyingly real.
Will 2020 be the year Hilary Mantel wins her third Booker? The final novel in her Thomas Cromwell series, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate, March), will be a big tome with big impact.
In debuts, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa (Fourth Estate, January) has been making a clamour – its premise: a young woman who “has to redefine the great love story of her life […]as rape”. Another assured first timer is Francine Toon, with Pine (Doubleday, January). I can confirm that Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury, January), is such a fun read, giving a nuanced take on race and class. Other debuts to watch are Alan Rossi’s Mountain Road Late at Night (Picador, February) and Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Chatto & Windus, January).
Indie publishers Galley Beggar and Fitzarraldo can often (and for good reason) be found on prize shortlists. Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar, August) looks fantastical and compelling, while Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (Fitzcarraldo, May) is said to cut to the heart of the Palestinian experience.
Australian Christos Tsiolkas, best known for The Slap, is back with Damascus (Atlantic, March), as is Booker-winner Graham Swift (Here We Are [Simon & Schuster, February]). Bookstores will be inundated with requests for Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (Europa Editions, June), her first new work of fiction in five years. Set in a divided Naples and centred upon a young girl on the brink of adolescence, here’s hoping it will bring as much depth, detail and emotion as her much-loved Neapolitan series. Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea (Bloomsbury, May), will also be highly sought-after. It follows two young people as they flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Another big hitter will be Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, June) by David Mitchell. Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Blackie and Emma (HarperCollins, November), a prequel to her 1979 hit, A Woman of Substance, should also draw a crowd.
Garth Greenwell is an author dripping with prizes and impressive bylines – he won The British Book Award Debut of the Year and has had fiction in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, A Public Space and more. Cleanness (Picador, April), is the follow-up to his prizewinning debut, What Belongs to You, and centres around an American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Sarah Moss’s Summer Water (Picador, September) was acquired in a nine-way auction and won a six-figure deal. Known for her distinctive style: this is described as “heart-stopping” and will hopefully be as unique and riveting as Ghost Wall.
The Hunting Party was Lucy Foley’s breakout debut. It’s followed by The Guest List (HarperCollins, February). For crime with a more literary bent, Chris Hammer’s Silver (Wildfire, January) should be terrific. Liz Moore’s Long Bright River (Hutchinson, January) centres on the murder of a sex worker in Philadelphia and is not to be missed.
No second-novel syndrome for Stuart Turton, with The Devil and the Dark Water (Bloomsbury, October), following his Sunday Times Bestseller, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Nor for Emma Jane Unsworth, with Adults (HarperCollins, January), about a woman in her 30s trying to be an adult, and her fortune-teller mum. Weather by Jenny Offill (Granta, February) is an intriguing one. Its protagonist answers mail for a doom-laden podcast, fielding questions from both sides of the political sphere, and questioning herself in the process.
Story collections always offer hidden gems, and Kathryn Scanlan’s The Dominant Animal (Daunt Books, March) comes recommended. Her spare, affecting pieces in Granta are a good primer.
I’m drawn to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (Scribner, February), about a young woman’s life in South Korea. It was a million-copy bestseller there, and provoked much controversy around feminist issues.
The next in the Skulduggery series, Seasons of War (HarperCollins, April) will keep younger readers rapt, and my YA spies recommend Malcolm Duffy’s Sofa Surfer (Zephyr, February), which deals with homelessness “with humour and heart”.
Choice: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener (Fourth Estate, January) looks at start-up culture through the lens of her own experience in Silicon Valley. It “charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world saviour to democracy-endangering liability”. There’s an excerpt available to read online, which has me hooked.
The late, great journalist Deborah Orr leaves Motherwell (W&N, January) – a beautiful memoir about her relationship with her complicated mother. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, a memoir about an abusive relationship, has already caused a stir.
Migration, democracy/fascism, ecology and technology are all major themes. The Rebel Girls series’ 100 Stories of Immigrant Women Who Changed the World (Rebel Girls, October), will donate $1 of each sale to the International Rescue Committee. Bestseller for 2019, The Secret Barrister, explores legal bias in Fake Law: the Truth about Justice in an Age of Lies (Picador, April).
Greta Thunberg’s family all contribute to Our House is on Fire: Scenes from a Family and a Planet in Crisis (Particular Books, March). You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy (Harvill Secker, January) argues for the need to listen in our technology-seeped, eternally busy world. All mark the zeitgeist of the day.
Another family affair as Esther Safran Foer (mother of Jonathan) releases I Want You to Know We’re Still Here (HarperCollins, April), about being the sole survivor of the Holocaust in her family.
Giles Tremlett brings the first major history of the International Brigades in Today the Struggle: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Bloomsbury, October).
Nick Cave fans can look forward to Stranger than Kindness (Canongate, March) featuring original artwork, handwritten lyrics, commentary and meditations.
Sarah M Broom’s The Yellow House won this year’s US National Book Award and is a memoir that examines “the seeping rot of inequality.”
Morality by Jonathan Sacks (Hodder & Stoughton, March) examines our period of cultural climate change, while Capital and Ideology follows Thomas Piketty’s prominent Capital in the Twenty-First Century and looks to provide insight on contemporary economics.
Olivia Laing’s writing is fluid, experimental and frankly breath taking. I can’t wait for her essay collection, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Picador, April). Lastly, I was delighted to see Leïla Slimani back, with Sex and Lies (Faber, February), essays exploring the cultural and philosophical impact of oppression in Morocco.