Caoilinn Hughes has won the 2021 Encore award, an annual £10,000 prize for the best second novel, for The Wild Laughter.
The judges – Sian Cain, Nikita Lalwani and Paul Muldoon – called The Wild Laughter “a grand feat of comic ingenuity, mischievous and insightful, and full of resonance for the way we live now”.
“The voice of Caoilinn’s doomed narrator, Doharty ‘Hart’ Black, is so original and vibrant, with a very particular poetic vernacular. This is a story of modern Ireland, set in the crash post Celtic Tiger, but it also feels timeless in many ways, with Biblical myth simmering under the surface. The Wild Laughter is a real page-turner, in spite of its literary heart, and a joy to read. We all look forward to reading more from Caoilinn Hughes in the years to come.”
The Galway-born author said she was overwhelmed to learn she had won. “I tried not to go completely bright red but I was definitely on the spectrum.
“The trail between the first and second novel is rough terrain. We all have bruises or IOUs to point at! But the readership a writer finds through her second novel is the more enduring readership. The Encore Award is a crucial recognition of its stakes.
“This award helped to bring Irish writer heroes like Dermot Healy, Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín to the fore, not to mention Sally Rooney and Lisa McInerney more recently. Other UK writers I so admire like Ali Smith and A L Kennedy were also championed early on by this award. To be following this lineage is strange and glorious.”
This year’s other shortlisted titles were Piranesi by Susanna Clarke; Should We Fall Behind by Sharon Duggal; The Blind Light by Stuart Evers; and The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
Hughes’ first novel, Orchid & the Wasp, won the Collyer Bristow Prize 2019 and was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards. The Wild Laughter was longlisted for the 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize. She holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington and is currently the Oscar Wilde Centre Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.
“I think your second novel is more telling about how you might continue to write,” Hughes said. “It can be more artistically decisive or riskier than the debut. The inconvenient or less glamorous story that demands to be told. Often the first novel is showier, sexier. The second novel has often been lingering for a longer time but you need to do the first novel to figure out how to write it.”
Asked to sum up her novel in her own words, Hughes says “I suppose it’s a state-of-the-nation portrait, but it’s also a love story, a family saga, a tragedy, about the fear of losing the father figure, survival, cowardice, sacrifice, this character’s desperate need for his story to be worthy of telling. That urgency of the narrative voice gave me no choice but to write the novel, I had to tune in. It’s like the narrator’s testimony and I am one of the jurors.”
However, as the name suggests, The Wild Laughter is a lot of fun too.
“The title comes from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour Lost. Lord Byron is challenged by the woman he is trying to woo to spend ta month in hospital with the sick and make them laugh. He responds: ’To move wild laughter in the throat of death, it cannot be, it is impossible, mirth cannot move a soul in agony’. I think Byron is wrong and I suspect Shakespeare did too. That black humour is very much part of Irish culture – Flann O’Brien, Beckett, Anne Enright, Colin Barrett, Edna O’Brien.”
Comparing her two novels, both set post-crash, Hughes says her protagonists are very different. “Orchid & the Wasp is a picaresque book with a female lead. The engine comes from her way of moving through the world. She has been taught by her father that the way to succeed in late capitalism is to protect your privilege. She grapples with cynicism.
“This book is trying to negotiate heroism, trying to tell one’s own story, negotiate one’s own culpability in society. It’s a tragic, melancholic voice.”
Her PhD was on sci-fi but her MA was in 20th-century Irish theatre, whose repressed rural Irish bachelors inevitably crept into her work. She chose Roscommon as a setting as she wanted to set it somewhere landlocked. “I’m not sure I made any friends there, except Chris O’Dowd who did the audiobook.”
It is the second major prize in a week for an Irish woman writer for a novel with a rural farm setting. Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers has just won the RSL Ondaatje Prize.
Hughes is a political writer. “Austerity revealed the changed social contract in Ireland, moving ever closer to American neoliberal politics. It had been happening since the ’80s. It seemed so much bigger than boom and bust, it was about a country becoming aware of a contract that it had never signed.”
She wrote the first draft while living in New Zealand for seven years, listening to talk radio, particularly Liveline. “People were ringing up to admit their own greed or culpability, I don’t think they were right. I was interested in that energy from citizens, introspection.”
Hughes has been successful in several fields as a writer, first as a poet, winning the Shine Award for her debut collection, Gathering Evidence. But she turned to fiction when in New Zealand where she struggled with poetry due to the culture shift. She wrote a novel just to figure out how it was done, then the two that have been published, before she wrote her first short story and fell in love with the form. She not only won the Moth short story prize in 2018, she also came third that same year, read blind by judge Kevin Barry, and last year won the Writing.ie short story award.
Her new novel’s working title is The Alternatives, about four Irish sisters in their 30s, “who all have PhDs and none have husbands”. She has never written a multiple-narrator novel before so it’s quite daunting. One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that is her method of making it up as she goes along. “I write into the dark. I’ve no interest in knowing where I’m going, it feels like colouring in to me.”