New fiction of the year: Sally Rooney’s talent anything but normal

The best debuts and emerging voices from Ireland and abroad in 2018

Sally Rooney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sally Rooney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Can we still call Sally Rooney an emerging author, given the accolades and column inches devoted to her second novel, Normal People? It’s a stretch, but in a round-up of the best new fiction of 2018, it would take an abnormal critic to exclude it. In a year that is arguably not as strong as its predecessors for emerging Irish authors, Rooney’s Man Booker-longlisted novel is a standout – a story of star-crossed Mayo teenagers helping each other into adult life that grips from the beginning and never lets go.

Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, impressed with its accuracy, intelligence and whip-smart dialogue. All three are here again, but with them a more heartfelt exploration of two meandering souls who sometimes find solace in each other. A quiet story, in many respects – small-town friends off to college in Dublin – its suspense is achieved through judicious pacing and pinpoint detail.

Joining Rooney on the Booker longlist this year were four notable debuts from UK authors: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, a dreamy, dystopian takedown of the patriarchy; In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, deemed “an inner city novel for our times” by the judges; The Long Take, an intriguing blend of prose and verse by Scottish poet Robin Robertson; and Daisy Johnson’s visceral mythic melodrama Everything Under, the only debut to make it to the shortlist.

In an uneven year for Irish debut fiction, the highlights were Danny Denton’s accessible modernist take on the recession, The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow; Darragh Martin’s Future Popes of Ireland, which had multiple recessions to play with as it charted three decades of Irish society from the first papal visit in 1979; and Belfast writer Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, a thought-provoking collection of stories that sparkled with dry wit and prose precision. Highly commended prizes for Caroline O’Donoghue’s witty, vibrant Promising Young Women, whose title neatly sums up the author as well as her work, and for Chris Powers’s captivating short-story collection Mothers

Pine time

Although not covered in New Fiction’s brief, it’s worth pointing out that the most-heralded Irish debut of the year was Emilie Pine’s engaging collection of personal essays, Notes to Self. Arnold Fanning’s poignant, beautifully detailed memoir, Mind on Fire, also deserves a mention. In October, Melatu Uche Okorie’s This Hostel Life mixed fiction and non-fiction to tell the stories of people living in direct provision in Ireland. Comprising three short stories and two essays, it is a vital and moving account of an under-represented, neglected segment of modern Irish society.  

Tramp Press, who published Pine’s book, also had a superb fiction debut in its 2018 catalogue, bringing my favourite debut of the year, American author Jade Sharma’s Problems, to Irish and UK readers. It tells the story of a recovering heroin addict in an unflinching, frequently hilarious tone that lacerates society for its inequalities and hypocrisies.

The early months of the year, always a popular time for debuts, saw plenty of exciting new talent from abroad. Peach by Emma Glass was an unforgettable account of the aftermath of a rape in a surreal, nightmarish world made vivid by the English author’s wonderfully expressive prose. Lullaby by the Moroccan-born Leïla Slimani was billed as “the French Gone Girl” for its page-turning tale of a sinister nanny, but ultimately delivered a more finely wrought exploration of class and gender. Another brilliant debut in translation was Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, the deadpan story of a Japanese woman who just wants to be “a normal cog in society”.

Period power

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by English author Imogen Hermes Gowar was historical fiction at its best – a big, bulging novel full of gorgeous period detail and plucky female characters. AJ Pearce’s debut, Dear Mrs Bird, gave us a wonderfully spirited heroine in Emmeline Lake, who set about dealing with the London Blitz in her own no-nonsense fashion. Staying with the UK, Owen Booth’s What We’re Teaching Our Sons offered life lessons in another format – the emotionally charged, first-person plural narrative of fathers passing down their experiences to the next generation.

From the US, The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce was an inventive look at the boundaries between this live and the hereafter. Other notable American debuts included Jen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead, the story of a cleaner looking to get her life back on track; Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, an insightful and painfully self-aware account that fictionalised her turmoil over whether to have children; and the reissue of William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer by Riverrun, 56 years after its original publication. The 24-year-old New Yorker wrote the book at the height of the civil rights movement in the US, imagining an alternative reality where his fellow African-Americans decide to leave a fictionalised southern state en masse. Carys Davies’s masterful debut novel, West, also took place in the US, a deceptively simple fable set in the earlier era of frontier exploration.

Yet its lessons on power and displacement, as seen from the titles above, still have resonance in 2018, two centuries later: “Like a dark, diminished cloud, they had moved west across the landscape away from what had been theirs.”