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Colum McCann is only Irish writer on Impac shortlist

Themes of war and real life dominate Dublin Literary Award shortlist

Colum McCann: he is the only previous Impac winner on the shortlist, having won in 2011 for ‘Let the Great World Spin’. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Jim Crace, author of Harvest, is a frontrunner for the Impac literary prize, the shortlist for which has been announced. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Richard Flanagan, who won the Man Booker Prize for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’

A wide-ranging selection of novels including last year’s Man Booker winner are among the 10 contenders for the 2015 International Impac Dublin Literary Award.

The shortlist, which is announced today, features Australian Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North as well as the Irish writer Colum McCann for TransAtlantic. McCann is the only previous Impac winner on the shortlist. He won in 2011 for Let the Great World Spin.

The list, which consists of novels from Australia, Ireland, England, Nigeria, Brazil, Morocco, the United States and Russia via the French language, by six men and four women, is dominated this year by English-language works. Only three are in translation, which is disappointing considering the contribution this award, now in its 20th year, has made to increasing awareness of the quality of international fiction in translation.

The shortlist of 10 was picked from 142 books nominated by libraries worldwide for the €100,000 prize.

War and real life events are major themes among the chosen titles. Flanagan’s acclaimed novel, which must start as favourite, already has a deservedly high profile. It tells the story of an Australian army doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who experiences the hell of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp while working on the Thai-Burma death railway. An outsider by nature, he has had an affair with his uncle’s much-younger wife. This secret obsesses and protects him. The narrative follows Evans through his life. Flanagan, a gifted, original writer, brings a compelling empathy to this superb novel which draws on the wartime experiences of his father, to whom this beautiful and brutal book is dedicated.

Fellow Australian Hannah Kent, the youngest contender at 30, is shortlisted for her debut, Burial Rites. It was inspired by the plight of the last woman to be publicly beheaded in Iceland in 1828, for murder. It is rife with ambivalence and injustice. Kent avails of a chorus of voices and makes effective use of the stark Icelandic landscape.

In K, by the veteran writer Bernardo Kucinski, many crimes form the dramatic backdrop to the agony of an elderly father in Brazil attempting to find out what happened to his beloved daughter. During the various “dirty wars” that terrorised Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, the atrocities in Brazil which resulted in the unsolved disappearances of many people are the most poorly documented.

Kucinski has written an important book which should be read, while it may not be the most obvious contender for a literary prize.

Laboured prose

The same could be said of Moroccan writer Mahi Binebine’s melodramatic Horses of God. Based on the attacks carried out in Casablanca on May 16th, 2003, by suicide bombers recruited from the nearby slums of Sidi Moumen, it is narrated by one of the dead terrorists. The dialogue is implausible and the prose so laboured as to render the book little more than a litany of horrors. Long before one arrives at the sentence in which the narrator recalls of his girlfriend’s breasts, “They were two pears, almost ripe, with raisins on top”, most readers would be wondering how any panel of judges could overlook Daniel Woodrell’s magnificent The Maid’s Version, or Eugen Ruge’s autobiographical debut , In Times of Fading Light .

It is as difficult to understand the inclusion of Alice McDermott’s cloyingly over-written Someone, a tedious novel in which an unusually unsympathetic Irish-American narrator offers an impressionistic account of a life that is simply not interesting. I admire the ordinary in fiction but this is dull. Interestingly, it was well reviewed in the Washington Post by Roxana Robinson, whose harrowing novel Sparta is also shortlisted. Robinson tells the story of Conrad, a classics major who has spent four years as a US marine serving in Iraq.

Atmospheric

She has written an important work about the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the impossible alienation experienced by returning veterans. Impressively researched, it fails to explain how Conrad’s law professor father and therapist mother could be so inept in dealing with their son’s difficulties.

Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, follows star-crossed lovers through years of self-discovery on contrasting personal journeys encountering race and racism. It is a forthright, sprawling polemic in need of an editor, yet she is an insistent storyteller with a great deal to say.

Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic opens with an atmospheric retelling of Alcock and Brown’s flight in 1919 from Newfoundland which ended in a bog in Connemara. It then introduces Frederick Douglass, a freed slave who became a champion of democracy, before moving on to a self-conscious interlude about the former US senator George Mitchell.

Siberian-born Andreï Makine writes in French. Brief Loves That Live Forever is his 12th novel and it is a series of philosophical mediations. It is simply beautiful. He is an artist and would be a wonderful winner. Yet even Makine, along with Flanagan, must contend with the challenge from Britain’s towering literary stylist Jim Crace. Harvest is as glorious as it is simple, a complex, menacing and brilliantly ambivalent elegy about change. Crace could win this.