Fiction, history, humour, emotion: The best books of 2017
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn stuff ... Writers name their favourite works of the year
Materialism by Terry Eagleton. Reading Eagleton is always an important reminder of the kind of academic and the kind of leftist we’re in danger of losing. While a global army of career academics are busy networking, conferencing and salami-slicing the same minute specialist research ten ways for peer reviewed journal articles that nobody reads, in a system nobody thinks is working, Eagleton’s writing continues to defiantly sweep across the centuries and includes a few gags along the way. While left opinion today, at least in media circles, has been captured by an imported American obsession with cultural politics, representation and identity, Eagleton reminds us of why the materialist philosophical tradition is distinct, what it is and what it has to offer, exploring the materialism of Marx but also of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.
Another great 2017 book that felt like a map in these worrying times was The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future by Adrian Pabst and John Milibank. With greater focus on the non-materialist questions and coming more from the ‘conservative socialist’ tradition associated with Blue Labour, they attempt to tackle what is to me the most immediate and important tectonic political shift of our time - the decline, perhaps even the collapse, of liberalism witnessed all around us, in both the rise of the new far right movements, in the anti-liberalism of the campus left and in the collectivism of the new popular socialist youth waves in the UK and the US.
Angela Nagle is the author of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right
I was browsing in Waterstones Cork one day when a bookseller recommended Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell. I was captivated by this book and its disturbing-in-a-good-way narrator. Helen, born in Korea and adopted by an American couple, goes back to Milwaukee and her estranged parents for her adoptive brother’s funeral, determined to discover why he killed himself. The writing is fearless, with lots of laugh-out-loud twisted humour.
Also full of humour and exquisite strangeness are two of 2017’s best short story collections: June Caldwell’s debut Room Little Darker, an outrageous, startling book featuring among other things fantasy, grief, hauntings, robots and sex slaves, and Levitation by Sean O’Reilly, a lyrical, fierce and uncompromising collection of linked stories woven around barber shops and set in Dublin and Derry. Another stand out was Joyce in Court by Adrian Hardiman, a fascinating exploration of Joyce’s obsession with the legal system that looks at the many trials referenced in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets
I was on the streets in Belfast in May 1974, watching loyalists building barricades across the roads as part of the Ulster Workers’ strike to bring down the powersharing executive set up by the Sunningdale Agreement. British soldiers stood-by and watched. All I could think of doing was to pester the British officers asking, “Why don’t you stop them? They’re breaking the law. Why don’t you stop them?” Their silence told me everything I needed to know as we watched the first attempt to create a consensus government in Northern Ireland disappear down the drain. So if you were there, and even if you weren’t, Sunningdale- the Search for Peace in Northern Ireland by the eminent Irish diplomat Noel Dorr, is required reading for anybody who wants to know what led to Sunningdale; or anyone who wants to trace the development of Irish and indeed British policy on Northern Ireland.
All my other books of the year are poetry books: Colette Bryce’s Selected Poems, a rich clutch of poems of which my favourite is The Brits; Sinead Morrissey’s On Balance with its magic poem, The Mayfly, about the aviator Lilian Bland; Conor O’Callaghan’s Live Streaming; Bindweed by Mark Roper and Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx.
Olivia O’Leary presents the Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1
Female Lines. New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland. Not before time, Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado and Linda Anderson’s light-touch editing casts these writers loose from subterranean anchorholds, drifting upwards into the light, their flinty authoritative voices an almanac of the virtuoso unheard.
In Levitation, Sean O’Reilly’s urban phantoms are abroad in the lost spaces of desire and O’Reilly is adept in the games of the fallen. Both books originate in the cosmopolis of Irish publishing. Neil Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom works at the intersices of the unloved and those incapable of love in contemporary India. Mujherjee’s interlinked stories, just about held in the moment of falling apart, reflect the state of modern India: poverty, caste and politics held together by some fierce intuition of a country.
Eoin McNamee’s latest novel is Blue is the Night
Michael Longley’s Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015 (Enitharmon, £30) begins with a masterly fragment of memoir, Tupenny Stung, and continues on topics as various as the poetry of Louis MacNeice and the subtleties of language in the Belfast Agreement: a feast of fine writing from a poet whose prose is almost as good as his verse. Carnivalesque, by Neil Jordan (Bloomsbury) is, among many other things, a magical and subtle parable on the mysterious transfigurations that puberty brings about in the lives of children and parents.
Although it was published last year I have just caught up with Eileen Battersby’s Teethmarks on My Tongue (Dalkey Archive Press, €19.50), a big, dense, tense novel that yet is light and sleek as a show-horse leaping effortlessly over a high fence. A wonderful debut from a wonderful critic daring to turn her hand to fiction.
John Banville’s latest novel is Mrs Osmond
Midwinter Break (Jonathan Cape) by Bernard MacLaverty is a novel of rare beauty. The twists and turns of the love of a retired couple on holiday are rendered with exquisite empathy. I have always felt that the wide enjoyment of Williams Boyd’s writing has detracted from deserved critical recognition. His latest collection of stories and novellas, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (Penguin) is another example of his prowess as a storyteller. It arrived during the passage of the Finance Bill 2017, perfect timing for me! Montpelier Parade (Harvill Secker) by Karl Geary is a sparkling and standout example of the growing tide of new and fresh Irish writers.
The best political book of the year is The Once and Future Liberal (Harper) by Mark Lilla. Advocating the virtues of elected office and a liberal common ground, it has infuriated many so-called ‘progressives’. It’s a short book, with a shimmering sense of conviction. The Fate of the West (Profile Books) is an acute summary of our discontents, with a demand for leaders to do better and make the case for what we have achieved. This wisdom was needed in 2017. It looks no different for the new year.
Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform
Of the non-fiction I read this year, the book that left the deepest impression was Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom. Carrère is a supernaturally gifted storyteller,whose long-standing technique of threading the fabric of his own life into the pattern of his non-fiction narratives is especially well realised in this novelistic history of the origins of the Christian religion. He’s a writer with a taste for extreme subjects, and few stories are as fascinatingly extreme as that of St Paul and St Luke, who travelled the fringes of the Roman Empire in the decades after Christ’s death and invented, out of the raw material of his teachings, an apocalyptic offshoot of Judaism that changed the shape of history. As for fiction, Fever Dream by the Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin exhilarated and creeped me out in equal measure. This uncanny novel is structured entirely as a dialogue between a young mother in a coma and a sinister child guiding her toward the submerged memory of a terrible event. It is short enough to read in one sitting, but you may want to go out and get some fresh air in the middle of it.
Mark O’Connell is the author of To Be A Machine
For the most part I read nothing this year but Penguin modern classics. Some were re-reads and the rest were books I should have read years ago. It was certainly a worthwhile exercise, not least because reading time was never wasted.
The highlights were Another Country by James Baldwin, The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I was very serious about my strict Penguin diet and read hardly anything this year that was new. That said, Richard Ford’s loving meditation on family life, Between Them (Bloomsbury) was impossible to resist. For work purposes, I re-read Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians (Faber & Faber) - the sort of book that young men, in particular, should read - preferably while they’re still young. I was impressed by the poetry of Ocean Vuong in Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Cape) and recently I’ve been dipping into Caspar Henderson’s excellent A New Map of Wonders - A Journey In Search of Modern Marvels (Granta).
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster. A poetry collection is forthcoming from Dedalus Press
Clair Wills’s Lovers and Strangers: an immigrant history of postwar Britain is packed with surprises: the exceptional Irish contribution to the story is seen in the context of later arrivals from even more diverse backgrounds. How they changed music, food, culture and religion and prompted a contemporary question: who are the British?
David McCullagh’s De Valera: Rise, 1882-1932 is the first volume of a dispassionate approach to one of the most elusive and enigmatic figures in our modern history. McCullagh makes excellent use of the voluminous de Valera archive. Brexit and Ireland, Tony Connolly’s important inside story of Ireland’s response to date of the many challenges of Brexit is authoritative and a constructive contribution to a central question in Irish politics and diplomacy. Eugene Broderick’s study, John Hearne: architect of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland does justice to a comparatively unknown player in our modern history. Finally, the monumental Atlas of the Irish Revolution from Cork University Press not only challenges with its provocative range of scholarship but is also a phenomenal publishing achievement which it is difficult to see being surpassed during the decade of centenaries.
John Bowman is a broadcaster and historian. His latest book Ireland: the Autobiography is now in paperback
Years ago, I read in one sitting Amanda Craig’s razor-sharp satiric novel A Vicious Circle: and this year I returned to Craig’s work with The Lie of the Land, a wonderful state-of-the-nation story for our troubled times. I also admired The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble’s astringent take on an ageing world; and Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay, a kaleidoscopic novel of myriad fraying lives, from the author of Ulverton. As for non-fiction: Claire Tomalin’s unsparing memoir A Life of My Own offers up a textured and diverse slice of the 20th century; while Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear, Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense illuminates with enormous sympathy the shadowed life of a fascinating and protean Victorian figure. And, while I wouldn’t necessarily want to be an octopus, I was absorbed by Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, which encouraged this human reader to re-imagine the very notion of what ‘intelligence’ might mean.
Neil Hegarty’s latest work is the novel Inch Levels
The most remarkable book this year seems to me The Atlas of the Irish Revolution from Cork University Press. The new arts and sciences of mapping and data open up the events of the revolutionary period: local, regional, national, making it all a true adventure even for the reader who thinks they know this subject well.
Toni Morrison’s new book The Origin of Others, which gathers together her Norton lectures at Harvard, provides another map: a painful and powerful study of race as it affected her writing and her reading. The book is clear and challenging. Attitudes are eloquently investigated: “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another,” she writes. “Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate?”
Finally, Whereas is a truly compelling new book of poetry published in the US by Graywolf Press and written by Layli Long Soldier,a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. It is a searing and challenging series of poems exposing the role of language in the injuries done to Native Americans in American history. A must read.
Poet Eavan Boland received the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Irish Book Awards
Mrs Osmond by John Banville is an ingenious sequel to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and also a serious and moving version of what happened to Isabel Archer in the short period after the novel ended as she stays in London and then travels to Paris - the Paris sequence is particularly fine - and then to Florence and Rome. While there are some lovely, sly jokes, the overall texture is luminous and engrossing. Banville manages to be faithful to James’s tones while offering cadences with his own inimitable signature on them.
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty is like an aching slow movement from a string quartet. Every moment is fully and closely imagined, every detail and piece of drama filled with chiseled truth. Atlas of the Irish Revolution collects all the best scholars of the period in one definitive, weighty tome. It is a book that no revolution should be without.
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is House of Names
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Revisiting Elizabeth Gaskell is always pleasurable and Mary Barton, in spite of its occasional lapses into sentimentality is well worth re-reading. Likewise Round the Sofa - “Then letters came in but three times a week; indeed, in some places in Scotland..but once a month. But letters were letters then! Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end... well, well! They may all be improvements!” So a sort of texting started around 1859, apparently, to the deep dismay of My Lady Ludlow.
An author who acknowledges the influence of email and texting on her literary style is Sally Rooney, and her novel Conversations With Friends I count among one of the best by a young Irish writer I have read in years. It’s a patient, deep exploration of relationships and character, with no sensational events, flambouyant tricks, or literary exhibitionism. She is the real thing. Anothe novel I loved was EM Reapey’s Red Dirt, an imaginative exploration of the experience of the young Irish in Australia. I would highly recommend Ian McEwan’s Nutshell and Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest novel is Aisling Nó Iníon A
Maggie O’Farrell’s incredible collection of essays I Am I Am I Am about her life was the most distinct and unsettling read of 2017. It set the tone for a lot of the work I liked this year: Andrés Barba’s chilling Such Small Hands, Han Kang’s otherworldly exploration of grief in The White Book, Camilla Grudova’s creepy, (David) Lynchian collection The Doll’s Alphabet and Leonora Carrington’s short stories reissued by new feminist publisher Silver Press.
Readers, have your say: What were your favourite books of 2017?
Irish writing was reinvigorated with story collections like June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker and David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On. I admired A Natural, Ross Raisin’s heartfelt story of a gay footballer. There were many beautiful books too: Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’s collaboration on nature’s lost words (The Lost Words); all of Notting Hill Edition’s clothbound essays and Deirdre Sullivan’s feminist retelling of fairytales in Tanglewood and Brine, illustrated by Karen Vaughan. Poetry showed us its depths with standout work from Elaine Feeney, Ocean Vuong, Miriam Nash and Maggie Smith. I gravitate towards non-fiction and essays and this year was exemplary: Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms, Mark O’Connell’s fascinating To Be a Machine, Brian Dillon’s Essayism and Roxane Gay’s raw account of her body in Hunger.
Sinéad Gleeson presents the Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1. Her essay collection, Constellations, will be published by Picador in 2018
Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland 1782-1849, selected and edited by Valerie Pakenham (Lilliput) open an entertaining window into the domestic existence of an extraordinary writer, but also upon contemporary Irish-ascendancy social life, Edgeworth’s writing (and reading) habits, and the reverberations of the Napoleonic wars. Full of reported conversations and sardonic asides, the letters are illustrated by evocative contemporary sketches, and Valerie Pakenham’s editing is exemplary: informative, judicious and lively, with a moving postscript about Edgeworthstown after the death of its famous inhabitant.
Connal Parr’s Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination (Oxford University Press) is an impressive intervention in cultural history, highlighting dramatic writing from Sam Thompson to Gary Mitchell and beyond. Parr’s description of this tradition as “fiercely inventive” is powerfully borne out by his penetrating analysis. Russian history was everywhere in this centenary year, and one of the very best surveys was Steve Smith’s Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis 1890-1928 (Oxford). By covering the pre-revolutionary world in detail, highlighting themes of religious as well as political culture, and continuing the story through the convulsive civil wars of the 1920s, Smith illuminates both why the revolution happened, and how it went off course. He also shows how continuities as well as dislocations marked this extraordinary period, and echo forward to our own.
The most satisfying novel I read was Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (Canongate) which deals with old age, dying and death deftly, intelligently and with an occasional outburst of appropriate rage; the dying of the light has rarely been probed so engagingly.
Roy Foster’s latest work is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923
My favourite book this year was Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. It has nine interconnected and unforgettable short stories set in smalltown Illinois. It’s an easy read but this belies its emotional and structural complexity. I found myself slowing down whilst reading and felt bereft of the storytelling when I finished it. I loved Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking and related to the narrator - Frankie - a young artist adrift and living in her grandmother’s place in rural Ireland. The poetic intensity of Baume’s sentences left me awestruck and the book has had a positive influence on the way I perceive modern art.
Geraldine Mitchell’s Mountains for Breakfast is a sublime poetry collection about memory loss, love and grief. The poems are set beautifully in an Atlantic coastal landscape. I was particularly moved by the section with her journal entries. Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends was current and compelling, I couldn’t put it down. She blended texts and emails into the prose seamlessly and the toxic situations the characters were enmeshed in created emotional responses in me. A writer brimming with innate skill and grace, I’m really looking forward to whatever she does next.
Elizabeth Reapy’s debut novel is Red Dirt
I read some great books in 2017. Some of them, including Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and The Party by Elizabeth Day, will no doubt appear on many “best of” lists. Others I’d like to see gain an even wider readership in 2018 include When Light is Like Water by Molly McCluskey and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie which, alongside Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, should have been on the Man Booker shortlist. When it comes to my beloved crime fiction, if you have never read a Maeve Kerrigan novel then Let The Dead Speak, the new book from Dublin’s Jane Casey is a great place to start and I’d also recommend the DI Grace Fisher series by Isabelle Grey and the Fiona Griffiths series by Harry Bingham - both released new installments this year. In non-fiction, I’ll be buying David McCullagh’s De Valera, Rise for a couple of people as a Christmas present and I also really enjoyed the marvellously titled Motherfoclóir, by Darach Ó Séaghdha.
Meanwhile, my surprise of the year was Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen. I was expecting an amusing read, what I got instead was a heartfelt, genuinely moving and at times utterly hilarious novel about a woman, and a sliver of Irish society we don’t hear enough about. More Aisling, please.
Sinéad Crowley is Arts and Media Correspondent for RTÉ. Her latest crime novel is One Bad Turn
One of my books of the year was Gwendoline Riley’s First Love (Granta), an exquisitely crafted fragmentary novel about a woman’s experience of a toxic relationship. Hectored and bullied by her much older partner, Neve tries to rally herself: “It’s lonely-making to sit and listen …. when he won’t let you in. Keep your footing. Leave the room if he calls you a name.” Snapshots of her strained familial relationships offer clues to her predicament; the frosty interactions between Neve and her mother, rendered with withering sarcasm in Neve’s narration, are a particular highlight of this poised and deliciously discomforting novel.
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Jonathan Cape), is altogether less harrowing but no less brilliant. Brimming with wry humour and linguistic whimsy, this debut novel tells the story of its narrator-protagonist’s first year at university, as she negotiates the vagaries of her first serious romance whilst grappling with the literary canon. “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone,” Selin declares. Batuman’s rendering of her protagonist - an endearing combination of ingenue artlessness and untutored, intuitive intelligence - evokes tender nostalgia for the clumsy innocence of early adulthood.
Houman Barekat is co-editor of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online
In Harry Clifton’s magisterial Portobello Sonnets (Bloodaxe Books), the everyday life of Portobello is seen in the light of his unflagging poetic quest. It is heartening to see the poet striking out, undaunted, into new imaginative territory. Aifric Mac Aodha’s Foreign News (Gallery Press) revealed a fresh and resonant poetic voice, simultaneously meditative and emotionally sinuous.
In Room Little Darker (New Island), June Caldwell constructs in prose of ferocious energy a recognisable Dublin world of gimps, junkies, consultant obstetricians, paedophiles, and young women with MAs in English. But under the surface of hilarity and absurdity there is an undertow of real emotional pain and dislocation.
Book of the year for me was Reiner Stach’s , Kafka: The Early Years (Princeton University Press), the concluding volume of what has already been acclaimed as one of the great literary biographies of the age. By carefully delineating in exhaustive and persuasive detail the Prague context of the early years of this unique but never solitary genius, he makes the stories and novels seem even more miraculous. Unmissable.
Michael O’Loughlin’s latest work is Poems 1980-2015
Two very different women from opposite sides of the globe got inside my head - and altered my view of the world. One was Dorothy Macardle, whose lyrical and unjustly neglected 1945 novel The Unforeseen, republished by Tramp Press, was a quiet revelation. The other was Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful, her study of maps and memories in the Australian desert, where she grew up on a cattle station and now volunteers at an indigenous arts centre, is hilarious and heartbreaking.
Grief and loss were recurring themes in 2017, articulated most forcefully in Padraic Fogarty’s eloquent Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature and Robert Macfarlane’s enchanting The Lost Words, with gorgeous illustrations by Jackie Morris. Another sumptuous production was William Laffan’s illuminating Abbey Leix: an Irish House and Its Demesne. There were exquisitely-wrought portraits of Irish family life in the novels Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty, and Married Quarters by Shane Connaughton, and outstanding family memoirs in Richard Ford’s Between Them: Remembering My Parents and Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind The Curtain. Finally, three first-rate page-turners: Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land and Jane Harper’s The Dry.
Arminta Wallace is an Irish Times journalist
As 2017 approaches its end, four of the books which remain to haunt me happen to be short story collections, perhaps indicating that the spirit of the contemporary is best captured in slightly weird, blackly humorous snippets: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh, Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams, Room Little Darker by June Caldwell and Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden. Each of these authors are variously concerned with the contrary nature of the world and its humans; each of these collections uniquely eviscerate reality.
The Giving Light by Gavin Corbett is rather a different sort of collection of stories - a photo book of pictures taken on film cameras in multiple cities of the world over the past several years. Seemingly innocent and familiar scenes become absurd on closer inspection, and a thin line of text runs from page to page beneath the pictures, adding odd flashes of enlightenment, as opposed to any particular context.
Sara Baume’s latest novel is A Line Made By Walking
Phil Harrison’s The First Day is an intriguing story of a pastor who has an affair with a younger woman and the repercussions of that relationship across thirty years, particularly on his son. It’s a fine exploration of guilt but also of the anxieties between religious communities in Northern Ireland, a terrain which is often under-represented in fiction.
I think Smile is Roddy Doyle’s finest book in twenty years. The central relationship between two school friends who reconnect in middle-age is so tense that the reader feels on edge throughout. As Victor’s memories of the past are slowly revealed, Doyle combines an unreliable narrator with a shocking finale that is both technically skilful and artistically audacious.
In non-fiction, I was greatly moved by Richard Beard’s The Day That Went Missing. Beard and I have been friends for almost twenty-five years but I never knew, until now, that his younger brother had died when they went swimming together on a family holiday as children. Beard reconstructs the events of that day while examining the long-term consequences on his family, creating a powerful testament to grief and emotional restraint.
John Boyne’s latest work is The Heart’s Invisible Furies
I was getting a bit worried about Roddy Doyle about three quarters of the way through this novel. Then I got to the end and everything I had read started rolling backwards in my mind. I don’t know of another writer who has dealt with the subject of abuse in a way so intrinsic to the structure of a book. Doyle writes about damage without relish or sensationalism. In Smile he manages to be considered and to take risks at the same time.
Lovers and Strangers by Clair Wills is a terrific and necessary book for anyone interested in the Irish in Britain, not least because it sets them beside other immigrants from the Caribbean, India and eastern Europe. Vividly realised, it shows these migrants as they learn to negotiate British culture, with its new freedoms and estrangements. This is history writing that likes to give the old categories a good shake.
Tessa Hadley is one of the great short story writers. Fans will read each collection as it comes, the way you might get the latest Alice Munro. They will not be disappointed with Bad Dreams and Other Stories. The more she writes the better she gets.
Anne Enright is the laureate for Irish Fiction. Her latest novel is The Green Road
Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is a very stark and striking memoir of the author’s experience with suicidal depression, and a love letter to the literature of, among others, Katherine Mansfield, Ivan Turgenev, John McGahern and most of all, her beloved William Trevor.
Twenty years ago I was told Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was a book about football for people who don’t like football. Wrong. But Ross Raisin’s A Natural, the best new novel I read this year, really is. It’s the story of a lower-league footballer, too good to be One of Us but not good enough to be One of Them. It’s written in a very seductive low-key style, in sinuous sentences that keep ending up far from where you thought they would.
Pushkin Press has been publishing a series of Japanese short fiction this year. My favourite so far is Hiromi Kawakami’s Record of a Night Too Brief (translated by Lucy North), which contains three strange and poignant stories of metamorphosis and sexuality, which should appeal to fans of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
And I loved Paul Fournel’s Anquetil, Alone (translated by Nick Caistor), a brief biography of a cyclist I’d never heard of before reading this book. It’s full of strange angles and eye-widening anecdotes, and almost made me get out of my chair and on my bike. But not quite.
John Self is a literary critic
Paula Meehan’s Geomantic (Daedalus) is so dazzlingly beautiful that you scarcely notice the technical brilliance of her arrangement of 81 poems, each of nine lines, each of them of nine syllables. It was also a great relief from the political madness so brilliantly captured in Anthony Barnett’s analysis of Brexit, The Lure of Greatness (Unbound) and in Luke Harding’s very scary but utterly compelling Collusion: How Russia helped Trump win the White House (Faber).
Malachi O’Doherty’s stringent and deeply researched Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life (Faber) shed new light on one of the most enigmatic figures in Irish history. And from the microscopic to the panoramic, the remarkable Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork University Press) does the indispensable job of complicating the past by mapping a period of violence and upheaval in astonishing detail.
In fiction, I was cheered by the linguistic and narrative energy of Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles (Hachette) and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (Faber). Roddy Doyle’s Smile (Jonathan Cape) takes a big risk with an old-fashioned plot device but pulls it off superbly - a genuinely haunting book about a life not led. In House of Names (Penguin Viking), Colm Toibín forges a language of timeless severity to tell the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children from wholly new angles and with a hypnotic power.
Fintan O’Toole is an Irish Times columnist and winner of the Orwell Prize for Journalism and the European Press Prize
There was certainly no shortage of remarkable fiction in 2017. The standout for me was The White Book by Han Kang (Portobello), beautifully translated by Deborah Smith. I was stunned by its gorgeous, profound clarity, its precise and powerful imagery. I’d invite more people to fall in love with Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia (Sceptre), as weird as it is winsome, and David Keenan’s exceptional, expansive debut novel, This Is Memorial Device (Faber), presented as a history of a young post-punk collective and so very effective as a tribute to friendship and creative energy. Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello) is the only book that’s ever left me afraid to turn out the lights: brilliantly translated by Megan McDowell, it’s mercilessly incisive and deeply creepy.
There were some stunning works from our own, too: Seán O’Reilly’s short story collection, Levitation (Stinging Fly Press), is properly bold and brilliant; One Star Awake (New Island), Andrew Meehan’s debut, is an evocative, exciting feast of a novel; Karl Geary’s Montpelier Parade (Harvill Secker) is an emphatically soulful exploration of isolation.
Lisa McInerney’s latest novel is The Blood Miracles
Atlas of the Irish Revolution (eds Crowley, O’Drisceoil, Murphy and Borgonovo) is a comprehensive collection of essays (often incorporating new research), documents, maps, models, paintings and photographs relating to the period 1913 to 1923. An indispensable guide to the period for the years ahead as we face into centenaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War.
Fintan O'Toole's Judging Shaw is a scintillating addition to the Royal Irish Academy’s successful Judging series. A beautifully written and illustrated look at one of Ireland’s most fascinating writers, and the inventor of a personal brand long before anyone else thought of it.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) appeared in a superb TV adaptation this year. The book is now on the bestseller lists. It was one of the warning calls at the end of the second wave of feminism, published in 1985, and remains a timely reminder of how easy it is for women to lose their hard-won rights.
House of Names by Colm Toibin is a fresh and vibrant reworking of the fall of the House of Atreus, with an extraordinary version of Clytemnestra, the woman whose daughter was sacrificed by her husband, and whose revenge powers the ensuing cycle of violence.
Catriona Crowe is former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland
Quirky and stylish, Robinson is Charles Boyle’s indefinable and witty response to Brexit. Readers are taken on an erudite journey through the many different versions of Robinson Crusoe since the original “father of all Crusoes” who “built a wall and fortified it with guns”. Boyle, like James Joyce believes that Crusoe represents a particular kind of English mindset, a “disfiguring influence…on British education and culture”.
Selected Poems by Colette Bryce – her precise voice is unmistakable, lonely, funny and somehow comforting because every word rings true. One feels that this is the only way to say it. Above all, I love Bryce’s Derry - epic and rich with tremendous cinematic perspectives. I’m never done with it, always wanting to go back for another look.
Elaine Feinstein’s The Clinic Memory: Selected Poems has haunted me since I first read it in January. Feinstein’s microscopic poetic eye examines her life fearlessly. Every poem feels like it’s been tested against a faultless internal music. Alongside the unforgettable elegies for her husband, the spectre of Europe’s murderous past raises its troubling head in some fine poems, sounding the alarm for our future.
Martina Evans’s latest work is The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems
I am currently enjoying Polly Clark’s Larchfield, a marvellous first novel about the years from 1930 to 1932 which the young poet WH Auden spent as a schoolteacher in Scotland. It shows that Auden’s gift for friendship with an eccentric woman lifted him way above the frustrations of everyday life into a zone of pure spirit. The eccentric is revealed here not as deviant but as someone with a deeper-than-average understanding of “normality”. Paradise Lost: A Life of Scott Fitzgerald by David S Brown showed just how deeply the novelist captured the mood of the world between the two World Wars. It is itself a fine work of cultural history about a magnificent cultural historian. Fitzgerald’s stories are shown as intensely personal yet also world-historical.
This being my year for reading biographical books, I also loved James Atlas’s Shadow in the Garden, not only for its profound yet chatty study of the art of biography, but above all for its tender lyrical portrait of my late, great teacher Richard Ellmann, who really did write the book on Joyce and Yeats, and Wilde.
Declan Kiberd teaches at Notre Dame. His latest work is After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present.
Something happened this year, we got jewels of collections, among them Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland , an anthology of fiction, drama, poetry, essays from women of the North. All that work that some of us knew nothing about. Then there was Elske Rahill’s collection, In White Ink, containing a few stories that fearlessly, nakedly, crash into the darker sides of real life. And all the time there’s Helen Garner from the other side of the world, with a book for all day-every day, marking 50 years of writing with True Stories.
There are many things that can be said about Sean O’Reilly’s restless agon Levitation, but one will do. Who would have the language, the nerve or the wit to write a story about a man who is looking for a babysitter so that he can keep his, previously postponed, appointment to get kneecapped? Joy Williams once said about the short story “Assemble the ambulances, something is about to happen.” Both Garner and O’Reilly, for different reasons, remind us that literature’s essential ingredient has to be controlled disturbance, and that it can be deliciously dangerous when it is not ironed out into cliché.
Evelyn Conlon’s latest work is Telling: Selected Stories
I was much taken by the shimmer of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s novel Peculiar Ground, a powerful and resonant piece of work. It was wonderful to see the always excellent Tramp Press republish Dorothy McArdle’s gripping novel The Unforeseen. I love how Lyndall Gordon thinks and I love the clarity and reach of her writing, combining imaginative audacity with scholarly scruple. Her Outsiders, a collection of portraits of George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Olive Schreiner and Mary Shelley, builds into a lucid meditation on how certain writers become lighthouses for each other. Declan Kiberd’s After Ireland is an engrossing joy, a book packed with insight. I loved Colm Toibin’s House of Names, Bernard McLaverty’s Midwinter Break, Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.
My debut novel of the year is Barry McKinley’s A Ton of Malice. Anyone who enjoys poetry would find much pleasure in Metamorphic, edited by Nessa O’Mahony and Paul Munden, a rich, generous, multitoned collection of new poems occasioned by the 2000th anniversary of Ovid’s death.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick and founding director of the annual UL Creative Writing Summer School at Glucksman Ireland House NYU. He is working on a novel about Bram Stoker’s long friendship with the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.
I know this is only supposed to be three books or so but it’s been a great and broad year so I’m going to cheat a little, as is the story of my professional life. The two most heartbreaking and wonderful 2017 love/life stories are John Boyne’s hefty The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Sarah Winman’s slim Tin Man - both vivid, funny, tear-inducing tales of what it was like to be a gay man in the 20th century.
I shared a stage recently with Sally Rooney in which she wondered who didn’t love a good story of middle-class affairs anymore. I certainly do and her debut Conversations With Friends is wonderful and just that. It sits with Ciaran McMenamin’s 90s nordie comedy-thriller Skintown and June Caldwell’s uncategorisable first collection of short stories Room Little Darker as my debuts of the year. Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine takes a real-life wander through the transhumanist movement - people trying to upload their consciousnesses and become part cyborg. It’s fascinating. Finally George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo, the story of the death and afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s child, is one of the most extraordinary feats of original storytelling this year.
Rick O’Shea is an RTÉ broadcaster
The Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork University Press) is a marvellous achievement, combining layers of sound, accessible scholarship on contentious and absorbing issues with an extensive mapping of the conflict that breaks new ground and illustrates the value of collaboration between geographers and historians. It is also a great feat of design. Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break (Jonathan Cape) has been long in the making and was worth the wait; an exquisitely detailed and authentic portrait of an older couple and all their foibles, baggage, humour and deep bonds and by far the best novel I’ve read this year. I also enjoyed Roddy Doyle’s Smile (Jonathan Cape). I found its portrayal of middle age and dissection of memory and identity over different decades convincing and unsettling; it is an uneasy and risky book and the better for that.
Literary midwife Edward Garnett’s correspondence has popped up in a number of archives I’ve researched in over the years; he was a great champion of Irish writers but I was able to appreciate the full extent of his remarkable life and encouragement of numerous literary giants in the early twentieth century in Helen Smith’s The Uncommon Reader (Cape), a brilliant biography of him.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at University College
Dublin and an Irish Times columnist. His latest work is A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-23
I’m always impressed when a literary novel balances fine writing with a compelling story and Karl Geary’s short but hugely impactful and entirely unsentimental Montpelier Parade did just that. A much longer read is John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies which I finished it in retching tears at midnight. It is a book, at heart, about secrets and the devastation they heap on the human spirit. I read a lot of feminist non-fiction this year and was particularly inspired by Everywoman by Jess Philips - a British Labour MP who is enlightening on the prevalence of domestic violence and sexism in the workplace. On the kids’ books front, I loved Tom Percival’s neon-hued picture book Perfectly Norman, a moving and gentle story about a boy who sprouts rainbow coloured wings but must keep them hidden from everyone, including his parents.
For slightly older readers Rabbit and Bear - The Pest in the Nest by Julian Gough and Jim Field continues with its winning formula of hilarious storytelling, a thoughtful message, and illustration that broadens the text. In teen fiction, Nikki Sheehan’s Goodnight Boy is a disturbingly dark yet irresistible tale about a boy trapped in a kennel with a dog which was heavily reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Sarah Crossan’s latest work is Moonrise
It’s been a good year for the many admirers of Michael Longley’s work. His eloquent and enticing new collection Angel Hill was followed by Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015. Sidelines has the poet exercising his critical faculty, and displaying remarkable perceptiveness from the word go. He has pertinent and interesting things to say about his youthful contemporaries Heaney, Mahon and Simmons (among others); but the range of the book is such that it takes in lectures, forwards, art criticism and all. Douglas Dunn’s The Noise of a Fly, long awaited, is a wonderfully intricate, thought-provoking and ironic collection of poems. It shows no diminution of the author’s distinctive liveliness and aplomb. In Hearthlands, Marianne Elliott’s engrossing memoir-cum-social history, the White City housing estate in north Belfast is subjected to enlightening comment and evocation. And Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage has a new and illuminating approach to the post-famine era.
Finally, I should like to applaud the strength and clarity of Bernie McGill’s novel The Watch House, set on Rathlin Island at the turn of the 20th century, and awash in old rituals and impending transformations, in loyalties and enmities and all manner of local witchery.
Patricia Craig is a critic and writer. Her latest work is Bookworm
The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry is a book that should be made available in every school. It's subject is Toxic Masculinity. Grayson brilliantly illuminates through his own perspective as an aggressive male, abused son and cross-dresser. Often heartbreaking and chilling, this is brilliantly empathetic and insightful. There are also hilarious drawings. Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Dr Ibram X Kendi is another book that should be placed in all schools. It is bracingly challenging and impressive in its scholarship and the brilliant organisation of its substantial material. Love Kill Repeat (A John Garrisson Anthology) by Shane Langan (member of Diet of Worms and co-writer of the sitcom The Walshes) is fantastically funny. And probably the shortest anthology ever gathered.
I also read Vertigo, Joanna Walsh's 2016 book. “He said: I will strip old paint from from the shed.” Walsh strips old paint from the short story form with a cool intellect applied to the messy heat of living. Hugely impressive. The Inky Digit of Defiance (Selected Prose 1966-2016) by Tony Harrison is hugely intelligent and interesting and provides a scattered autobiography of this class conscious writer of verse plays moving from Nigeria to Cuba, from Russia to Hollywood; it is particularly brilliant on Greek tragedies and their relevance for todays world of pain and suffering – power and powerlessness. Less gritty but no less enjoyable is Man Booker shortlisted Tom McCarthy's erudite heady mix of high-intellect essays Typewriters Bombs Jellyfish.
Kevin Gildea is a comedian and critic
Readers, have your say: What was your favourite book of 2017, and why? Tell us about it at irishtimes.com/books