Hilary Fannin wins John McGahern Book Prize for debut Irish fiction

The Weight of Love by Irish Times columnist follows memoir Hopscotch and several plays

Irish Times columnist and playwright Hilary Fannin’s first novel, The Weight of Love, has won the 2020 John McGahern Book Prize, the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies announced today. The prize, which is worth £5,000, is awarded for the best debut novel or short story collection by an Irish writer or writer resident in Ireland.

The winning entry, published by Doubleday, is a brilliant, moving account of a love triangle, summed up by Anne Enright, who said: “This is heartache for grown-ups.” It was chosen by Colm Tóibín, Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and one of Ireland’s leading authors, from a shortlist which included Niamh Campbell for This Happy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and Cathy Sweeney for Modern Times (Stinging Fly; Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

Sixteen entries were received, read and adjudicated upon by the shortlisting committee of Prof Dame Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor, University of Liverpool; Prof Frank Shovlin, professor of Irish literature, the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool; and Sarah Gilmartin, fiction reviewer at The Irish Times.

Tóibín said: “The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin handles a complex time frame with an effortless sense of skill and ease. Fannin’s characters are drawn with texture and shade so that their motives and feelings are both unpredictable and fully credible. Her writing has an unfailing energy; the narrative structure of her book is compelling; her vision of contemporary Ireland is original and convincing. There are moments in the books that are deeply impressive for their daring.


“But what is most impressive is Fannin’s ability to vary the tone of the book, to be at home in London as much as Dublin, to be in the 1990s as much as the world of now, to handle the characters of Robin and Joseph with the same sympathy and insight as the figure of Ruth, to create a version of love and loyalty under the pressure of time that is vivid and engaging.”

Fannin said: “It is joyous and uplifting to win this prestigious award for debut fiction at the age of 59. I am profoundly grateful to the Institute for Irish Studies at Liverpool University, to chancellor Colm Tóibín and to the McGahern estate.

“Lives aren’t simple, they rarely run to a timetable. This award represents a tremendous confidence boost at the somewhat late start of my career as a novelist.

"The Weight of Love was published in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, and it is a testament to the initiative and diligence of booksellers nationwide, the lungs of the industry, that it found the readership it has. It would be wonderful if this award helped the book to find new readers, and in some way reward the kindness it has been shown.

“I’ve embarked on my second novel – it appears to be setting its own pace and I'm prepared to give it the time it needs. I realise how privileged I am to have the time and support to write, and it's something I don't take for granted.

"I'm also delighted to be writing an adaptation of Gorky's Children of the Sun for Rough Magic Theatre Company on the cusp of the company's 40th birthday. Mine is one of six commissions which will see new plays from new and established playwrights (including Marina Carr and Morna Regan) produced as part of the company's Compass festival."

Prof Pete Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies, said: “It is heartening to see that fictional debuts can come from people of all ages and do not just belong in the territory of the young. The Irish fiction scene, of which John McGahern was such an important champion and exemplar, continues to be in rude good health and we at the Institute are delighted to play our part in its continuing promotion.”

Shovlin commented on the strength of the shortlist: “I would have been happy to see any of the three books win the prize, each of them representing a new, distinctive and exciting voice. Hilary Fannin is a writer with whom many will be familiar through her witty and incisive Irish Times columns. She brings these qualities to The Weight of Love while also managing an emotional gravitas that makes us truly care about her characters and their destinies, drawing us into an enjoyable and propulsive reading experience.”

Novelist Helen Cullen, reviewing The Weight of Love for The Irish Times, wrote: “A novel by Hilary Fannin, Irish Times columnist and author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hopscotch, arrives on a wave of expectation. The Weight of Love must, perhaps unfairly, carry the weight of the love for Fannin’s work that has gone before. A fiction debut from a woman who has mastered the art of truth is already enticing, and the premise accentuates the anticipation.

“This book is, if not quite dangerous, at the very least disquieting. If you have bruises still of lost loves, unpulled threads, unfinished business, this book will push them... Fannin proves the efficacy of fiction as a medium for truth – and in doing so, exceeds all expectations.”

The inaugural John McGahern Prize was awarded last year to Adrian Duncan for his 2019 debut Loves Notes from a German Building Site (Lilliput Press). McGahern, was the author of six highly acclaimed novels and four collections of short stories, a play, an autobiography and a number of essays. He died in 2006.

The University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies was established in 1988 and remains the only one of its kind in Great Britain. The Prince of Wales and President of Ireland Michael D Higgins are its joint patrons, symbolising the significant role it plays in the cultural, political and cultural life of these islands.