Rónán Hession on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844-46)
At 1,200 pages, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas has the look of a book that might be boringly good for you. I read it 20 years ago, during my young-man-reads-big-books phase. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with such adrenalin, awe and immersive enjoyment, aided by the zippy and vivid translation by Robin Buss. If ever there was a model of solitary, broken greatness it is Edmond Dantès. I still think of the Martello Tower on Ireland’s Eye as Chateau d’If, the island prison where Edmond was sent to rot.
Rónán Hession is the author of Leonard & Hungry Paul and Panenka (2021)
Sarah Moss on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Jane Eyre is one of the books that changes when you’re not looking at it. I read it first, aged about 10, as a school story with a weird romance on the end, an exploration of the shaping powers of education and childhood friendships. As a teenager I shared Jane’s yearning for the damaged (but landed) hero Rochester and couldn’t understand why she would choose moral strength over sexual fulfilment. As a middle-aged reader I see Brontë’s impossible experiment with desire and feminism: Jane longs for the man who will destroy her and comes of age in walking away from him, but the form of the novel itself compels a rather dark romantic resolution, with prices paid for Jane’s uneasy happiness by other outsiders. I wonder how I will read it in later life. In all my readings, I love the celebrations of my own native landscapes and weather in northern England; the tricksy unreliability of the first-person narrator; the perfectly observed details of clothes, firelight, food; the conversations where what is not said hangs heavy in the drawing rooms where Jane the orphan and working woman will never be at home. It’s been filmed and widely received as a romance, but the shock with which Victorian readers received this novel was justified: Jane Eyre is far darker and more interesting than that.
Sarah Moss’s latest novel is Summerwater
John Banville on William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847)
The best antidote to Dickens’s cloying sentimentality and George Eliot’s didacticism is William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, published in 1847 but set in the period of the Napoleonic wars. Its subtitle is A Novel Without a Hero, because at the centre of the narrative is that heroine of heroines, the clever, vengeful, unscrupulous and ever adventurous Becky Sharpe. Thackeray knew the world and its ways and had no intention of glossing over the general awfulness of people; the result is a shrewd, disgracefully funny and deeply subversive work of art, one of the finest the nineteenth century produced.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow
Kathleen MacMahon on David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
Rediscovering Dickens earlier this year, I found myself wondering why I’ve been reading anything else. It’s quite a feat to produce a page-turner when there are so many of them to turn. The characters you know, not just because many – like the famously unctuous Uriah Heep – have passed into the wider culture, but because you’ve met versions of them in real life. Dickens doles out good qualities and bad with great fairness across all professions and classes, which is refreshing in this age of virtue signalling. He’s also the kindest and most tender of writers, which is what we all need right now.
Kathleen MacMahon’s latest novel is Nothing But Blue Sky
Seán Hewitt on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859)
It’s an old cliche to say that a book made you miss your train station. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), however, gave me a better class of anecdote. I was so completely overcome by one of its narrative twists that I stood up on a cramped Transpennine service to Ilkley and said “NO!” aloud, simultaneously dropping the book and banging my head on the luggage racks above me. I wasn’t even embarrassed. If you read the book, I doubt you’ll be able to sit still either. This dark, mysterious, outlandish rollercoaster of a sensation novel is the best of its kind, and for all its Victorian bulk, you’ll wish it was twice as long.
Seán Hewitt’s debut collection is Tongues of Fire
Gavin McCrea on Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis (1913)
Swann’s Way is hilarious. Especially the narrator’s great-aunt, Mme Octave: “One day I’ll pass away like Mme Rousseau without even time to collect myself”. But what makes Swann’s Way great, I think, is its capacity to evoke the other emotions: grief and longing. Swann’s final “sighting” of Odette in a dream (with each step he moved further away from Odette, who was descending in the opposite direction) rends my heart, but only because, emotionally, it transports me back to the beginning, where the narrator, as a little boy in bed, longs for his mother to come and give him his goodnight kiss: I came to wish this goodnight I loved so much would take place as late as possible, so as to prolong the time of respite in which Mama had not yet come. The “way” from yearning to loss and back is long, and not without frustrations – and that is the joy.
Gavin McCrea’s second novel is The Sisters Mao ( Scribe, 2021)
Niamh Campbell on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Portrait is a novel of development starring Stephen Dedalus, a version of the young James Joyce. Its style was radical for its time, moving from baby-talk to quasi-erotic fear of the pandybat, to a meditation on the contents of Jesuit hell - including, unforgettably, the “worm of the triple sting” – to the fossilised English of Lower Drumcondra, to the “bird girl”, a figure for freedom through art. Icarus-like Stephen ends every section on an epiphany only to crash to earth a few pages later, over and over again. I read this book every winter, like taking a course of vitamins.
Niamh Campbell’s debut novel is This Happy
Colm Tóibín on Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a novel created on a grand scale, with sweeping shifts in style and brilliant parodies. But it is also a novel filled with details, with figures who snake their way into the book from Dubliners, or pepper the book with their constant presence, including a man on a bender and a man in a mackintosh. At the centre is Leopold Bloom, a man of wide appetites and even wider sympathies; at the centre too is the city of Dublin. But at the centre there is also style in prose, not to speak of high comedy and low passions.
Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is House of Names
Hilary Fannin on Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf (1925)
Woolf’s experimental novel takes place on a single, blisteringly hot London day in 1923 and follows the path, and those who cross it, of quinquagenarian Clarissa Dalloway, wife of a parliamentarian, as she prepares for a party that evening in her home. The post First World War novel, which is broken up into 12 sections – one for each hour of the day – is suffuse with loss; loss of loved ones, loss of certainty, loss of youth and sanity. Without chapter breaks to catch ones breath, the reader can almost drown in Woolf’s prose. It is however, a beautiful, willing drowning in a sea of exhilarating language and sharply glittering social observation.
Hilary Fannin’s debut novel is The Weight of Love
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)
As a teenager, I imagined myself as du Maurier’s nameless narrator, gripped by the choices and challenges she faced. You’ll be drawn in by the novel’s brilliant opening line, infuriated by the shrill, snobbish Mrs Van Hopper, riveted by the brooding Max. But Manderley? Its ghosts will take your breath away. If you’re new to the book then I envy you. If not, then read it again. It still has secrets to reveal. (Note for example: teenage me would have gone with Max to Manderley. Grown-up me would take my chances with Van Hopper and scarper to New York without delay.)
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s latest novel is A Strange Kind of Brave
Naoise Dolan on Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
In December 1943, Evelyn Waugh used a rest from military service to work on Brideshead Revisited. In a preface to a later edition, he describes writing in a “bleak period of present privation” – and so “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical ornamental language”. To me, this is how Waugh wrote for an audience in crisis. His attempts at lecturing fall flat, but he’s a firm companion. Brideshead is a sumptuous book where everyone’s still sad. That’s what you want sometimes: a writer who’ll join you in the abyss with a bottle and a song.
Naoise Dolan’s debut novel is Exciting Times
Joseph O’Connor on Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951)
Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is that rarest of things, a genuinely mysterious novel. I have adapted it for the stage, so I know it inside out, but I’m still not quite sure what happens at the end, or who fancied who, or why. The writing is brilliant, rich and beguiling, and the musk of unspoken sexuality arises from every page. Part psychological thriller, part fable of erotic obsession, its chiaroscuro portrayal of the Contessa Rachel Sangaletti is unforgettable. In her second-hand gowns and flickering gothic shadows, this potion-brewing, smart, funny Oxfam fatale rules every gorgeous sentence of the novel.
Joseph O’Connor’s novel Shadowplay won the 2019 Eason An Post Irish Novel of the Year Award. It has just been published in paperback by Vintage.
Michelle Gallen on Down All the Days by Christy Brown (1970)
I was 11 when I plucked Down All the Days from my mother’s bookshelf. When she caught me reading it, she took the book back and told me I was too young for the likes of Christy Brown. Because nothing is as alluring as a forbidden book, I smuggled Down All the Days back off the shelf and read it in secret. This riotous, filthy, lyrical and heartbreaking book – written by someone almost completely paralysed by cerebral palsy – seared itself into my consciousness and taught me lessons about endurance, joy and resilience that have helped me navigate my darkest days.
Michelle Gallen’s debut novel is Big Girl, Small Town
Eoin McNamee on Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane (1973)
Ninety-Two in the Shade Thomas McGuane’s 1973 hallucinatory duel to the death between gamefish skippers in Key West, the Florida salt flats almost dimensionless in the planar light and summer heat. McGuane’s Key West home to the deadbeat, the carnal and the corrupt, spiralling downwards in bright fractals. The politics of the book still current. Louche and outworn 1960s radicalism gives way to the idea of Republic embodied in the single image of the Permit, a great hooked gamefish motionless and lucent in the mangrove shallows, elemental to itself and unattainable. McGuane’s sentences hunt down beauty on the edge of meaning but it is the light on the sea that stays in your mind.
Eoin McNamee’s latest novel is The Vogiue
Lisa McInerney on The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)
I finished reading The Piano Teacher on a Citylink bus driving from Dublin to Galway through an oily winter night, the perfect setting for this unapologetically transgressive classic that doesn’t want to warm your heart, but instead revels in its demented dinginess. Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, about a repressed teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, her sadomasochistic relationship with brash self-styled playboy Walter, and her love/hate relationship with her passive-aggressive mother is fascinating, and there are few better studies of complex (and frequently despicable) people in fiction. It’s not the easiest read, but it is knotty, curious and beautifully realised.
Lisa McInerney’s third novel is The Rule sof Revelation (John Murray, 2021)
Martina Evans on Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook (1986)
Once read, Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook cannot be forgotten. Kristóf claimed she wrote simply because her French wasn’t good but her spare, utterly concrete prose resonates like poetry. This cruel, beautiful story tells how two Hungarian twin boys navigate World War Two using their own idiosyncratic survival rules. Their startling morality is like that of a dark folk tale, telling uncomfortable, unquestionable truths that come like electric bolts from the unconscious. The twins also provide the shortest, best guide to good writing I’ve ever read. I recommend the ever-discerning CB Editions version, translated by Alan Sheridan, which includes an afterword by Slavoj Zizek.
Martina Evans’ next book is American Mules (Carcanet, 2021)
Sara Baume on Chroma by Derek Jarman (1994)
Before he was a maverick filmmaker, a gardener, a diarist and a political activist, Derek Jarman was a painter. He started making paintings in boarding school in the 1950s, and continued through to his death from an Aids-related illness in 1994. Chroma, subtitled A Book of Colour, was written in 1993, in fragments, and as Jarman’s eyesight was beginninging to fail. It’s a rare, brilliant book of vivid scenes, light and dark, associations and impressions, as well as snippets of history, theory and philosophy. In 120 pages, Chroma somehow manages to embody all the colour of a radiantly lived life.
Sara Baume’s latest book is handiwork.
Danielle McLaughlin on Room for a Single Lady by Clare Boylan (1997)
It says something about the timeless quality of Clare Boylan’s writing that when I searched the house for my copy of Room for a Single Lady it eventually turned up in my teenage daughter’s bedroom. Published in 1997, the novel is set in Dublin in the 1950s and immerses us in the lives of the Rafferty family, who find themselves suddenly poor and are forced to take in lodgers. Boylan’s writing is magnificent – many of her sentences and images have remained with me since my first reading of the novel. Room for a Single Lady is funny, enchanting, heart-breaking, sharply observed and beautifully written.
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel is The Art of Falling (John Murray, January 2021)