Leslie Jamison’s fierce essay collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn focuses on lonely whales, past lives and photography. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s excellent Thick looks at the United States through race, education and grief. Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting memoir mash-up recounting an illegal abortion in France in 1963. Katherine Angel’s Daddy Issues is a fascinating dive into fathers in literature and film; Anne Boyer’s The Undying furiously interrogates her cancer through the lens of capitalism and gender, while Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth also deals deftly with illness and voicelessness.
Environmentally, Underland by Robert Macfarlane and Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie really stood out. In fiction: Sudden Traveller, Sarah Hall’s new short stories, Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here, Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Max Porter’s folkloric Lanny, Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin. Bonus poetry and anthology finds: Rebecca Tamás’s Witch, Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche and Common People, Kit de Waal’s anthology of working-class writers.
Sinéad Gleeson’s debut essay collection, Constellations, was voted Irish nonfiction book of the year 2019
Colson Whitehead’s masterpiece, The Nickel Boys, is brilliantly imagined and immensely moving, a perception-altering novel about race and privilege, how power works and shapeshifts, the disguises it dons. It’s an American story but with resonances for every society, every workplace, every family. I was thunderstruck by Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters and sorry it didn’t get the Booker recognition I felt it deserved. Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive is taut, smart, terrifying, moving. Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, Follow Me to Ground, is another true original: eerie, beautiful and utterly itself.
Ever since being transported by J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet as a kid, I’ve been interested in the lore of that part of the world, the bit of the neighbouring island that both is and isn’t England. So I loved The Folklore of Cornwall by Ronald M James. Through the assiduously researched stories of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper, Halle Rubenhold’s The Five illuminates the truths but also the denials of Victorian London, a city that feels weirdly familiar.
Joseph O’Connor’s novel Shadowplay was voted Irish novel of the year 2019
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss makes me sad for England, now that Brexit is near. Like Lanny by Max Porter, another great book of 2019, it is true to some idea of England – of landscape, tradition and deep history – which is being clawed back, by these writers, from English nationalism. I have also discovered Deborah Levy (I am late to the party, I know) and I am not listing her work here. She is so intriguing and astringent and intellectually exciting. I am saving the current book, The Man Who Saw Everything, for Christmas.
The Irish poet Jane Clarke has followed a great debut collection with an even better second book. When the Tree Falls talks about her farming father in his last years. It delivers a clean, hard-earned simplicity and a lovely sense of line. But my outstanding book this year is Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, which details conversations between a mother and her dead son. It is not enough to call this a good novel. Li’s book is a remarkable human document that tests the limits of language and of the imagination.
Anne Enright’s latest book is Actress, which will be published in February
This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill is a brilliant expedition across the minefields of the #MeToo wars. Detailing the fall of a massively handsy New York book editor, it’s a deft and funny and thought-provoking story, and it never shies away from the most difficult truths, such as the way that men who genuinely listen to women can subsequently get away with almost anything. Gaitskill’s fiction gets close in to the migraine whine of the contemporary moment like that of few others.
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith is a portrait of the artist in motion, through her days and losses and grief and joys – she reminds us always of the magical and redemptive moments made possible by the life that is lived through books and music and art.
Kevin Barry is the author most recently of the novel Night Boat to Tangier and the screenplay for Dark Lies the Island
Expectation by Anna Hope did wonders to fill the Sally Rooney-shaped hole in my life. I read it while staying at a yoga retreat in Turkey, where I did zero yoga but a lot of standing in the pool flying through this beautifully written book about a trio of friends battling through the disappointment and frustration that can bridge the gulf between expectation and reality.
As a writer I made a concerted effort to do more reading and less scrolling this year, and in doing so also found huge joy in Sophie White’s Filter This, a sharp look at the world of Instagram and influencers. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin and Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid are also sitting in my pile of “books I hugely enjoyed in 2019”. If audiobooks count (and I think they do) then Demi Moore’s Inside Out is gripping, sad and nowhere near as salacious as it was made out to be.
Emer McLysaght is author, with Sarah Breen, of the Aisling series, which has won popular-fiction book of the year in 2018 and 2019, the latter for Once, Twice, Three Times an Aisling
In the Cut by Susanna Moore was first published in 1995, but it was republished in the UK late this year. Someone whose opinion I greatly value recommended it to me in terms I found too intriguing to resist: she said that it was a masterpiece, a rare book about male violence that doesn’t replicate the patterns it seeks to critique, but that she felt that reading it had almost ruined her life. Finishing it, I saw what she meant. You could describe In the Cut as an erotic thriller, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, because it’s certainly that; but it’s also an uncompromising excavation of the darker reaches of female desire, and a uncomfortably heightened depiction of what it is like for a woman to feel endlessly watched and menaced by men. Its ending is also one of the most devastating things I have ever read. One of the most interesting new nonfiction books I’ve read in a while is the artist Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. In a way, it’s a sort of self-help book, but one that’s diametrically opposed to the productivity logic of self-help as a general racket. Closer in spirit (and prose) to Emerson than Dale Carnegie, it’s a beautiful book about reclaiming space for thought and reflection amid the chaos of the attention economy.
Mark O’Connell is the author of To Be a Machine, and the forthcoming Notes from an Apocalypse
Joseph O’Connor’s depiction of the theatre world of late 19th-century London in Shadowplay is atmospheric and evocative, while he also manages to explore with verve, humour and acuity the public role and inner turmoil of the intriguing Bram Stoker. Seamus Mallon’s A Shared Homeplace is a strikingly original and challenging memoir. He weaves an exceptional eloquence around the unvarnished details of the devastation at the height of the Troubles and the isolation and recriminations it generated, while continuing to challenge tribal approaches to politics and possible Irish unity. William Trevor’s Last Stories are beautifully and meticulously crafted and a reminder of his emotional insight and enduring skill. Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: Herself Alone finishes a gargantuan biography of three volumes and almost 3,000 pages on the back of 20 years’ research and writing. While it is an official biography, and as a disciple he sees her as “the greatest genius ever to direct the affairs of the UK”, he still manages, overall, to be measured and do justice to her impact and complexity.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Border is published by Profile Books
This year has been full of books that made me want to sit and read, uninterrupted. I dived into Elizabeth Strout’s new story collection Olive, Again, but as I neared the end I began to slow down, so reluctant was I to finish it. (Note to readers: if you haven’t read Strout before, run, don’t walk to get hold of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, then treat yourself to the most recent!) Highly anticipated, Sinéad Gleeson’s debut essay collection, Constellations, did not disappoint. It is both moving and erudite, and I find myself coming back time and again to her work as a touchstone for how the best writing makes links between the self and the world. I’m not normally a poetry reader, so I was taken by surprise by Hannah Sullivan’s collection Three Poems. It’s witty and direct, full of ideas and details that ring true and that made me look at the world anew. Finally, on a long train journey, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House was enormously readable.
Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self was voted Irish book of the year 2018 in January
Three new volumes of Irish memoir, in all their honesty and openness, change what we expect from such books and will likely liberate anyone in the future who wishes to dig deep into their own experience. They are Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach and Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney. In reading all three, I was amazed and often exhilarated by what the writers were willing to reveal, and the elegance and tact with which they handled the most difficult subjects. In poetry, I enjoyed the sharp, chiselled diction of Mary O’Malley’s Gaudent Angeli, the frolics and detours in Paul Muldoon’s Frolic and Detour, and the match between the ordinary and the visionary, and the sheer beauty, in Ciaran Carson’s Still Life. William Feaver’s The Lives of Lucian Freud combines scholarship, seriousness about the art, insight into the body of work, courtesy of a large number of interviews Feaver did with Freud, and an eye for hilarious and telling detail.
Colm Tóibín’s latest book is Pale Sister (Gallery Press)
I read three brilliant, beguiling short-story collections: Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery and Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall. All in their own way exceptional. In terms of nonfiction, Janet Malcolm’s Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays showed her customary elegance, depth and stringency. I loved In Sunshine and in Shadow, Donald McRae’s winningly powerful exploration of boxing across sectarian divides, and also Sweating Tears with Fat White Family by Adelle Stripe: a great writer interviewing a great group.
Emma Warren’s Steam Down or How Things Begin, an account of a weekly jam in Deptford, was one of the most thoughtful and inspirational things I read this year. Novels? I raced through Vigdis Hjorth’s superb and troubling story of family trauma, Will and Testament, and was thrilled by Wayne Holloway’s vibrant, savage satire Bindlestiff. Rónán Hession’s gentle Leonard and Hungry Paul I found a genuinely innovative book. And David Keenan’s For the Good Times was just outstanding: phantasmagoric, high-octane, hilarious and horrific.
Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home
The most bitter-sweet wonder of the year is Ciaran Carson’s last, late windfall of poems, Still Life. The knowing pun of the title captures the quiet delight of being not dead yet that shines out in moments of tenderness and radiance. The long lines he handles so deftly are lifelines that keep him connected to the land of the living and remind us how lucky we are to inhabit it. And to have been around for such an astonishing time in Irish poetry. I loved Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life, a beautiful, life-giving series of meditations on the body, illness, motherhood, death and the self. It is a very immediate and vivid book, rooted in contemporary Ireland, but Gleeson’s calm self-scrutiny makes it feel as if it could been written hundreds of years ago.
At a time when political leadership is such a terribly abused concept, Seamus Mallon’s A Shared Home Place, written with Andy Pollak, is a reminder of the indispensability of public integrity. Part personal and political memoir, part manifesto for a shared future, it has the steely clarity and profound decency that marked Mallon’s endurance of the Troubles and great contribution to peace.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
Kit de Waal
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a great book, a sort of Gothic thriller thta tells the story of Frannie Langton, a Jamaican slave brought to England by her master where she commits a murder. The whole book is told as a confession while she awaits trial and is one of those page-turners that require a good long weekend to savour it. Frannie tells the story of the horrendous conditions on the plantation in Jamaica, a place where Africans aren’t human, where they can be experimented on by the master, with Frannie forced to assist. And England is no better, though she is technically a free woman, but when two people are murdered in mysterious circumstances Frannie is the obvious culprit. It’s brilliantly written, very funny in parts, sexy, clever and a book that will keep you guessing until the end.
Kit de Waal won Kerry Group Irish novel of the year 2017 for her debut, My Name Is Leon. The Trick to Time was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. Her first young-adult novel, Becoming Dinah, was published this year, as was Common People, an anthology of working-class memoir by new and established writers
Breandán Mac Suibhne
Brendan O’Leary’s three-volume A Treatise on Northern Ireland will keep anybody interested in history or politics engrossed into the new year. A magisterial survey of the great failure that has been partition, it illuminates its origins, elaborates its costs and estimates its life expectancy. Nationalists, he argues, are likely to achieve an electoral advantage in the North “by the end of the 2020s”, meaning that reunification may be about as distant in time as the last Fianna Fáil government. Those, north and south, who will mourn the Border’s passing can console themselves that it will survive in fiction. In The Big Yaroo, Patrick McCabe checks upon Francie Brady, who in The Butcher Boy ran the roads of south Ulster, crossing the line between sanity and insanity. That was in the early 1960s. Here, in old age, Francie (now Frank) is locked away, far from the Border, in an asylum from which most patients have been evacuated to Portrane – and he is locked away too in the 1960s, when things made more sense than “this accursed digital Babel of non-stop chaos”. Crossing borders can leave you in limbo institutions. The writing collected by the poet Jessica Traynor and the actor Stephen Rea in Correspondences highlights the plight of people in direct provision, which, with the 2004 referendum that denied Irish citizenship to people born here, continues to stain our reputation.
Breandán Mac Suibhne won the Royal Irish Academy’s Michel Déon Prize for nonfiction for The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland
The collection of Greta Thunberg’s speeches, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, is an unflinching plea to each one of us to face up to our fears. “Your silence is almost worst of all,” she says, and I am floored. Small enough for the Christmas stocking.
The luminous, hollowed-out prose of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s novel The Narrow Land is reminiscent of the paintings of Edward Hopper, about whom she writes. This is not a plot-driven book but a gorgeously drawn portrait of an artist, of a marriage, and of the postwar United States. Stephen Sexton revisits his younger self in the last months of his mother’s life in the poetry of If All the World and Love Were Young, a monumental paean to life itself, and to love. “I want my monument to be composed of light...” he writes, “the light stopping on them tree I adore you I adore you world.” It’s exquisite.
Rebecca O’Connor is a poet and novelist, and director of the Moth
The late Ciaran Carson’s final collection of poems, the poignantly titled Still Life, is a sustained and typically jaunty meditation on beauty and mortality, and a myriad other topics, through considerations of individual paintings by artists from Velázquez to Basil Blackwell. Carson writes in long, sinuous lines that allow his imagination a last, great flourishing. Wry, witty and brave, this work is Carson at his finest. A heartbreaking and heart-restoring book.
Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is both a celebration of all that lies hidden beneath our feet, and a warning, if warning were needed, of the continuing, reckless human undermining of our exquisite and all too fragile planet. Macfarlane is a poet of the natural world, and this is his masterpiece so far. Novel of the year is My Coney Island Baby, by Billy O’Callaghan, a lush, precise, poetic account of a love affair that ends the way most love affairs do. We knew O’Callaghan to be a master of the short story, and here he shows the grand reach of his powers as a novelist.
John Banville’s latest novel is Mrs Osmond
The book I have been talking about all year to everyone I meet is The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop. It reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I know what high praise that is. Told from nine different points of view, you are drawn in from the very first page, sucked into the baking heat, the claustrophobic community and the deeply ingrained racism of the 1940s in the United States. I have to mention the incredible Vicky Phelan’s memoir, Overcoming. Vicky Phelan went to hell and back to expose the CervicalCheck scandal. I have always thought she was brave and courageous. But after reading this autobiography I am in awe of her. Looking for something quirky and witty? Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner or Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam. I also loved the debut novel by Anne Griffin, When All Is Said. One to watch for in 2020 is the fantastic debut by Michelle Gallen, Big Girl Small Town, which is a cross between Milkman and Derry Girls.
Sinéad Moriarty’s latest book is Seven Letters
Andrew Tierney’s The Buildings of Ireland, Central Leinster: Kildare, Laois and Offaly is another jewel in this indispensable series. Clonmacnoise on the front cover and Castletown on the back bookend a richly illustrated cornucopia of churches, castles, houses, schools, banks, courthouses, railway buildings and factories, described with erudition and a sly wit, which vividly illuminate the social history of this much-settled region. Another kind of social history is Margaret Kelleher’s The Maamtrasna Murders: Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, a powerful reconstruction of language shift and legal process in Victorian Ireland which is also a complex meditation on historical violence, injustice and cultural incomprehension – echoing forward to reflections of this episode in the work of James Joyce. Joyce and language-shift recur in Barry McCrea’s dazzling Languages of the Night: Minor Languages and the Literary Imagination in Twentieth-Century Ireland and Europe, which I came to three years late: a linguistic and critical tour de force, rereading Joyce, Pasolini, Ó Ríordáin and Proust and decisively changing the way we read modernist literature and literary history.
Roy Foster’s most recent book is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland; he is currently working on a short book about Seamus Heaney
So much incredible poetry published this year, but by far the most exciting and devastating was Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, playing with form so we aren’t always even sure how to read the text. In nonfiction my standout was Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a raw and very true exploration of the frightening inner sexual lines of women. I found it absolutely riveting. And finally, in YA, my pick is Chessboxer by Stephen Davies, the most original kids’ book I’ve read in a while from a voice I’d like to see gain more recognition.
Sarah Crossan is Laureate na nÓg. Her latest award-winning book is Toffee. Here Is the Beehive, her adult-fiction debut, is due out next September
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession was read during a day of my summer holidays and has stayed with me all year. A story of two gentle souls, of family and of friendship, it is a deeply warming tale with echoes of a more humorous William Trevor. The Border by Don Winslow is anything but gentle. This is a majestic conclusion of a trilogy that began with The Power of the Dog. A near biblical epic of organised crime and a tortured anti-hero aching for redemption. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is a timely reminder that Gilead, in the end, crumbles. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship by Ece Temelkuran, however, shows that while darkness does ebb, it also beckons. A deeply important warning.
Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform
Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights left a mark on me in the way that only the best philosophical fiction can. A symphony of stories and fragments that ostensibly explores ideas of home and travel but really maps the anatomy of the heart and mind, this book triggers serious existential questions. In her deep conviction for the suffering of humanity and its fellow creatures, Tokarczuk reminds me of JM Coetzee. Like Coetzee, she wears her intelligence lightly, but the soul-suffering is harder to conceal, and the cumulative effect is quietly devastating.
The philosopher-scientist David Chalmers’ theories in The Character of Consciousness are fascinating. What if consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe? What if every system – not just humans and animals but even photons and subatomic particles – have some degree of subjectivity, some precursor to consciousness? These essays are perfect for dipping into and, even when the material is technically difficult, the reader comes away feeling a little smarter than before she opened the book.
Mary Costello’s latest novel is The River Capture
I thoroughly enjoyed Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which offers a dramatic and sensual insight into the lives of Bram Stoker and Henry Irving when they were working alongside each other at the Lyceum Theatre in 1870s London. O’Connor inhabits his characters with all the intensity of a method actor, re-creating an extraordinary world of creativity and self-doubt.
Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word is a disturbing novel about fraternity life in the US, seen from the perspective of the girlfriend of one of the frat house brothers. A graphic and violent novel, it makes for a distressing read, possibly because the horrors that lie behind the front door are only too believable. David Nicholls’s Sweet Sorrow is a deceptively simple story of first love. A teenage boy meets a teenage girl and, along with some of their friends, they stage a production of Romeo and Juliet over the summer break. But Nicholls writes with such humour and insight that the novel is elevated to something special. A joy to read.
John Boyne’s latest novel is My Brother’s Name Is Jessica
It’s been a great year for reading, so it’s difficult to narrow my favourites down to just a few books. I devoured Sue Rainsford’s fantastic debut, Follow Me to Ground, in one sitting. It’s a deeply unsettling, thoroughly compelling read, unlike anything I’ve ever come across before. I literally couldn’t put it down. I’ve also been trying to read more poetry.
Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was definitely the best collection I encountered. Kaminsky’s poetry manages to be both devastating and incredibly beautiful. It raises huge questions about responsibility, culpability and what it means to be human. My final pick of the year is Say, Say, Say, Lila Savage’s hauntingly honest novel about the interpersonal dynamics which come into play when a professional carer enters the family home. I’ve spent much of the year researching how dementia is represented in fiction and have yet to find a more gracious, well-written or humane portrayal of the illness and its implications.
Jan Carson won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland 2019 for her novel The Fire Starters
Mary Costello’s The River Capture was the most beautiful new novel I read this year. A love letter to Joyce and Ulysses that is also influenced by other Irish writers, like John McGahern and Colm Tóibín, it’s the story of how one life can take hold of another, and the fine line between integration and disruption. Inaptly, I locked myself away from my family to finish it. Childhood, Youth and Dependency, a trilogy of memoirs, should make Tove Ditlevsen, who died in 1976, as big a name here as she is in her native Denmark. Composed with artful clarity decades after the events they describe, but written with the immediacy of journal entries, these slim books are bright, fresh, funny, shocking, tense and vital. Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li describes imagined conversations between the author and her son, who took his own life aged 16. That makes it raw and powerful even in concept, but the delicate approach which Li brings to the task makes it immeasurably moving – and oddly consoling.
John Self is a book reviewer; he lives in Belfast
Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor was a glorious romp through Victorian London in the excellent company of Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, Sir Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre. I believed every word of this fictionalised account of their relationship. Cruel Acts by Jane Casey is a superb detective novel exploring a possible miscarriage of justice. While DI Maeve Kerrigan solves the crime, suppresses her natural feelings for her colleague, she also looks at the lives and backgrounds of the female victims. I think I read The Lost Man by Jane Harper, set in the hottest part of Australia at the hottest part of the year, while sitting in the fridge. It is a brilliantly told story of a fractured family, and the setting made the book leap to life for me. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson might be the most intelligent book I have read in a decade. A slim collection of essays and poems exploring science, art, medicine, history, illness, music, motherhood and feminism, Gleeson shines a light on her, and our, darkest corners.
Liz Nugent’s new novel, Our Little Cruelties, will be published by Penguin next March
Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time is unique and original. A strange lens captures the world anew. Stories composed of almost abstract aphorisms refract the light of life and reconfigure it in a refreshed vision. Dark, depressing and hilarious. Ian MacPherson ’s Sloot has funny meta poignancy as a murderer is revealed in a Flannesque escapade with added looking-back-over-life poignancy. Jarett Kobek’s Only Americans Burn in Hell is a Frankenstein’s monster of a novel – biography, commentary, narrative – in a meta mash-up that manages to satirise the unsatirisable: our world now. John Waters’s Mr Know-It-All is the self-declared “Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder”. Transcendence through trash in hugely entertaining and oft-hilarious tales of the hustler artist life of this film-maker who dragged himself and his outsider artistic family right to the centre of American cultural life. Wise, funny, nuts and humane.
Kevin Gildea is a writer and comedian
Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters is a superb work of the imagination, a tonic for the toxicity the North’s political stagnation emits. The River Capture by Mary Costello is a dream of a novel, a love letter to nature, Joyce, art and love itself. Ghost Light, Joseph O’Connor’s exquisite reimagining of Synge’s love affair with Molly Allgood, did not get the recognition it deserved. Not so Shadowplay, his brilliant portrayal of Bram Stoker’s intense relationships with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, a witty, wry, astute and tender delight. By contrast, The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead's heartbreaking follow-up to the prize-winning The Underground Railroad, has not got the attention it deserves. The Outback is not just a crime scene in Jane Harper’s The Lost Man; it is a murder weapon. The real mystery, however, as in the best fiction, is the human heart, and the author’s interrogation of a family and a community is a masterclass in getting at the truth. Joe Country by Mick Herron and Cruel Acts by Jane Casey are models in how to defy the law of diminishing returns in a series. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson was a revelation and an education, profoundly moving in its laying bare of personal suffering but also intellectually satisfying in its sharing of the wisdom gained by a lifetime of close and careful reading.
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times