Ten great Northern Irish novels you might have missed
Authors are using new ways of writing to reflect a changed political environment
Photograph: Haydeny West/PA
Northern Irish fiction is currently having a bit of a moment: novels have been picked up by major publishing houses and Bernard McLaverty, Lucy Caldwell, David Park and Paul McVeigh have had critical success. Genre fiction is flourishing in the form of historical novels, love stories, science fiction and crime thrillers. In particular, the latter genre is well served by the novels of Eoin McNamee, Brian McGilloway and Stuart Neville, as well as the recent collection of short stories Belfast Noir.
These authors express a feeling that new ways of writing are appropriate to a changed political situation. Here are some recommendations that you might not have read first time round. They are well worth picking up, to further explore the rich fictional heritage of Northern Ireland.
The Eggman’s Apprentice by Maurice Leitch
Of all my finds in second hand bookshops in North Street in Belfast, I prize my collection of Leitch’s work. His fine, important early novels are out of print but in this later novel you can see all his skill with character development and meticulous plotting. His unflinching, clear prose makes the countryside seem a nasty, brutish place where protagonist and reader cannot help but be both drawn in and repelled.
Fat Lad by Glenn Patterson
The author of ten novels, a co-authored screenplay and two volumes of journalism, Patterson is possibly the most prolific author on the list. It is worth delving into his back catalogue for his second novel, reissued by Blackstaff (incidentally, a press worth supporting). Set a few years before the IRA ceasefire of 1994, it deals with questions of identity, emigration and sexuality with good humour and an impressive narrative sweep. The tale of return is overlaid with a depiction of Belfast’s industrial heritage that seems particularly relevant to the changing city.
The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill
Initially a theatre writer, McGill is becoming established as an important fictional voice and this novel adds to the growing genre of Northern Irish historical fiction. The two eras are particularly well drawn here and the reader is immersed in both the concerns over Home Rule in the Big House, and the beginning of the Troubles. McGill’s eye for detail and character draw the reader in as the horror unfolds. Her subsequent novel, Sleepwalkers, is also dark and rich; both confirm her as a talent worth watching who will explore difficult stories.
Father’s House by Bethany Dawson
This novel deals with a return to mid-Ulster of a prodigal son, and exposes the complexity of family bonds in rural Northern Ireland. Dawson’s debut shows a steady hand and real patience as the plot carefully unravels. Each dynamic is meticulously drawn, whether between old flames, children and parents, or brothers and sisters. Suspicious of easy framings of the past, the novel offers up something much more complex.
No Bones by Anna Burns
A masterclass in technique, Burns’ powerful, disturbing book is not for anyone who prefers their reading cosy or comforting. It is a profoundly troubling novel which considers mental health during the Troubles with an unflinching, ambitious narrative voice. It is a political, difficult novel that exposes the gaps in the usual Troubles novel, and is all the richer for it.
Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
Gilbert’s novel was reissued in 2013 with an introduction by the horror writer Kim Newman, which is a testament to the fascination this horror novella still holds. Adapted for the screen in 1971 as Willard, it features an alienated young man who uses a veritable army of trained rats to commit crime. It is grisly, malevolent and great fun. Tutored by Forrest Reid, Gilbert’s prose exhibits the same grasp of form as his mentor, even as he attends to the most horrific subject matter.
The Last of the Duchess by Caroline Blackwood
This might be cheating, as it is technically a true story, but it is told with such narrative flair and features such wicked prose that I couldn’t resist. It details Blackwood’s attempts to unravel the mystery around the last days of Wallis Simpson and the circle who protected her. If you fall for Blackwood’s sharp, acerbic prose, do try her short stories or her novel Great Granny Webster, which details three generations of an Anglo-Irish family with the blackest humour.
The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill
Another writer who I scour secondhand bookshops for, McNeill’s fine novel is being given a new lease of life by Turnpike Press later this year. She is second to none as a chronicler of the frustrations of ageing and middle class life, and her sharply drawn portraits of pre-Troubles society are beautifully character driven and relentlessly thoughtful. The protagonist’s eventful summer, where everything she held true shifts, reveals what lies beneath the veneer of respectability.
Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
A wildly original novel, acclaimed at the time of publication, but worth revisiting again for its portrayal of homeless life in Thatcher’s Britain. The prose is dazzlingly inventive but Wilson never loses control of the central story of a young Northern Irish man who is forced by circumstance and choice to wander the streets of London. I recently re-read this, and it feels provocative, fresh and relevant.
Shadow Box by Antonia Logue
This sensual, evocative novel imagines the correspondence between the artist Mina Loy and the boxer Jack Johnson. Initially centering around Loy’s disappeared beloved husband Arthur Craven, it becomes a powerful meditation on race, sexuality and the body. In the boxing ring or in the bedroom, Logue draws every sinew and feeling with care and urgency.
Dr Caroline Magennis is lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature in the School of Arts of Media at the University of Salford in Manchester.