The best books by women of the 21st century
On International Women’s Day, writers and critics pick the best works by women since 2000
You don’t need me to tell you to read everything pre and post-2000 by the greatest Irish writer, Anne Enright (who just happens to be a woman) - but you really should. Or to read our poets: Eavan Boland, Rita Ann Higgins, Elaine Feeney, Sinéad Morrissey, Leanne O’Sullivan. You already know all about the success of Marian Keyes and Tana French, and you’ll soon hear more about the possibilities of the future with Melatu Uche Okorie, Lauren Foley, Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi and Caragh Maxwell.
In fiction, Irish women have certainly excelled, but right now, there are non-fiction conversations that are starting to feel like narrative stents, a ventricle wall unblocked. Stories that resist the novel; stories that can’t be told in short fiction. In Ireland, we’re playing catch-up on our US contemporaries when it comes to the essay, but slowly these stories are emerging, from Emilie Pine to Rosita Boland and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Stories that are rooted in the personal but are vehemently political. One book that could be said to have started this movement is Lia Mill’s extraordinary In Your Face. In it, Mills details her experience of facial cancer, and subsequent surgery to save both her life and her jaw. It has a well-deep heart and contains some of the finest writing about pain and illness (“the pain in my cheek throbs and swells, like a musical note; when the wave rises and falls, the fall has a sorrowful note to it, where some part of the chorus feels sympathy for the organism, for its frailty.”) Mills manages to be both lyrical and comic, laying out her experience with great humanity. It’s a book about much more than illness - survival, and the multitudes of life – and should be read more.
There are writers that when we discover them, it’s akin to a door opening. Finding Maggie Nelson, as both a reader and a writer, made me re-evaluate many things about what writing can do. She is a chameleon on the page: a passionate poet (Shiner), art hybridist (Bluets), literary true-crime writer (The Red Parts), but The Argonauts is her masterpiece, written in what Nelson herself calls ‘auto-theory’. It reels in death, parenthood, politics and trans experiences, filtered through a prism of other writers, from Roland Barthes to DW Winnicott, and Eula Bliss to Eileen Myles, with a rigour and fearlessness I hadn’t seen before. In a review in these pages I described the book as “part philosophical manifesto, gender treatise, fragmented novel, memoir, love letter and art critique.” Nelson is that unclassifiable – not just in form, but because there are few contemporaries to come close to her.
Sinéad Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations: Reflections from Life will be published by Picador on April 4th
We’ve been asked to talk about novels published since 2000, and we weren’t explicitly told to stick to writers who are women, but given that this is for International Women’s Day, I’m assuming that’s the idea. I’m going to cheat a little and choose…a man! Joking. I’m going to choose two novels rather than one, because they’re both novels I consider to have been hugely underrated when they came out, and which, as a consequence, may have been missed by readers who’d have enjoyed them.
The first is Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know (Faber, 2012), which as far as I’m concerned is the novel of the Celtic Tiger property bubble, of its grotesquerie and its greed – which makes it essential reading all over again, come to think of it. It’s a satire, it’s a fable, it’s an allegory, it’s a fever dream of narrative possibility and of imagination and skill – and it’s also a story, a huge, brilliantly-conceived story, about a man – about men, actually, take from that what you will. (But, um, who caused the economic crash? OK then.) To try to sum up the plot of this book would be to reduce it, so please just take my word for it, and find it, and marvel at this writer’s gift.
The second novel is a debut from 2013: Elske Rahill’s 2013 Between Dog and Wolf (Lilliput), a campus novel which is actually a being-a-person novel, a novel about being a person and how vertiginous and disastrous and shitty that can be. Rahill writes about sex and the body with bruising fullness; on the differences, obvious and invisible, that gender makes, she is fearless and superb. She’s written other books since, a collection, In White Ink, and a novel, Molly’s Will; find them, too.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun(Fourth Estate, 2006), was an extraordinary book when it appeared, and, if anything, seems even more extraordinary today. Adichie was not yet the superstar she is now, but to have read this story of the Biafran War, written with exquisite nuance and startling vividness, in magnificently confident prose, was to be, already, in awe of her talent. It’s a war novel to rank with Regeneration and The Things They Carried. It’s visceral. It’s a masterclass in writing emotion and devastation (not that many of us would want, or be able, to write the kind of genocidal devastation that Adichie portrays). It’s unforgettable.
Belinda McKeon's latest novel is Tender
It may be my bias showing, but few books have given me as much pleasure in recent years as Lucy Caldwell's collection of stories Multitudes. Yes, we're much of an age, yes the settings include several east Belfast localities I walk past daily, but there's more to it than that. Her understanding of how we grow up, her combination of sharpness and empathy, and the range of approaches within an ostensibly narrow setting all go to show the best qualities of a collection of stories: that of being various.
From an international perspective, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods is a comedy that dares to go where others don't - into an outrageous deadpan satire on sexual politics and power, the workplace gender gap, and most of all the language we use to conceal things from ourselves. It was published just seven years ago but already deserves to be rediscovered, and celebrated properly this time.
John Self is a critic, who reviews regularly for The Irish Times and the Guardian
In 2016 I was lucky enough to hear EM Reapy read from her then forthcoming novel Red Dirt. The intensity of the language blew me away. I was taken with its untapped story of the modern Irish immigrant in Australia – working on fruit farms, getting wasted and wrestling with their demons from home. Simply structured in three parts, this book beat out a fast, urgent pace that I devoured.
Technically Kit de Waal could fit into both categories. Here she is representing an international author whose The Trick To Time has secured her place as one of my favourite writers. This book cuts to the heart of what it is to love someone – the patience and sacrifice required to never let go. De Waal’s writing is beautifully subtle, lulling the reader into falling in love with the lead character Mona. The writing is gentle, almost whispered, never skipping a beat in this tale of who Mona is, and all she has held onto for so many years.
Anne Griffin is the author of When All Is Said
Sometimes good books come along at just the right time. I first read Authenticity by Deirdre Madden as I was beginning my PhD and I was captivated by the way Madden places art (making it, thinking about it, appreciating it) at the centre of the authentic life. Of course, the novel is also so much more than a “message”: Madden builds a narrative that is somehow both low-key and searing, delving into the loneliness and intimacies of lovers and siblings. I mourned it when it ended. And then I turned back to the first page, and started reading it again.
Lisa Coen gave me On Immunity by Eula Biss as a way of showing me what could be done with different forms of nonfiction, and as she passed it to me I think she said something like “You think you don’t want to read a book on vaccines, but you do, really”. And she was right. Biss uses the decision to vaccinate her child as a way of telling the story of immunisation, at once a deeply personal and a broadly social history, in a voice that is completely unsentimental. It’s short. It’s perfect.
Emilie Pine is associate professor in modern drama, UCD, and author of Notes to Self (Tramp Press), the Irish Book of the Year 2018
The first book by Elena Ferrante that I read was The Lost Daughter, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. It’s a very short novel, about 140 pages, and its intensity is remarkable. Ferrante draws the reader so deeply into the interior world of the narrator that the effect is both unsettling and entrancing. In the novel’s opening chapter, the narrator says: “At the origin was a gesture of mine that made no sense, and which, precisely because it was senseless, I immediately decided not to speak of to anyone. The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.”
Reading the book felt like looking at something I knew I shouldn’t be seeing, but still couldn’t look away from. There’s a sense that there’s nothing that’s off bounds when it comes to the messy and often dark psyche of the protagonist, as well as her past, and her relationships with others, in particular her daughters. “How foolish to think you can tell your children about yourself before they’re at least fifty,” the narrator says. The doll around which much of the action is woven is written magnificently by Ferrante to disturbing effect: “The doll, impassive, continued to vomit. You’ve emptied all your slime into the sink, good girl. I parted her lips, with one finger held her mouth open, ran some water inside her and then shook her hard to wash out the murky cavity of her trunk...” Ferrante manages to imbue her material with a sense of rawness, while keeping the writing all the time assured and unfussy.
Another novel I admired for how deftly it places us deep inside the protagonist’s head is Martin John by Anakana Schofield. The structure of the novel, with its refrains, loops and circuits, cleverly mirrors the workings of the protagonist’s mind. The reader is right there with the main character in his compulsive and obsessive thoughts and behaviours. There’s the hold that newspapers have on Martin John, for instance. Very particular rules apply to the choosing of them: “He never buys a newspaper if he notices a headline has petrol in it. Or pervert. He’s not keen on P words.”
He’s also driven to engage in a strange analysis of what he reads: “He tallies up the number of words that commence with a chosen letter each day and records them in a line.” The need to buy the newspaper “keeps him buoyed. Keeps him from the situations. Mam said only a structured daily life would achieve this. He’s keen to avoid the situations...”Schofield writes about Martin John in a way that evokes empathy, no small feat given that he’s a sex offender.
Schofield also does magnificent things with language in this novel, and made me laugh a lot as I was reading. It’s a book that deals with difficult subject matter in a way that’s brilliantly funny. I heard the author read from Martin John recently at Doolin Writers’ Weekend and was reminded again of just how good it is. I can’t wait to get my hands on Schofield’s next novel, Bina, out later this year.
Danielle McLaughlin is author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets
Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is one of the boldest novels of the century so far. It is darkly compelling not just for its wrenching exploration of emotional damage but also for its splendidly confident remaking of Irish modernism. She is not afraid of Virginia Woolf but more importantly not afraid of taking on – in the sense of inheriting and making entirely her own – the legacy of Joyce and Beckett either.
It’s quite possible that the single most important book about politics, economics, culture and society in this century is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. She explains with far more power than anyone has done before the emergence of a whole new form of capitalism based on the expropriation of the personal data we freely give to vast corporations. It’s the Das Kapital for our times.
Fintan O’Toole is an assistant editor of The Irish Times. His latest book is Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
About a third of the way through Anna Burns’ Milkman I had to put the book down, shadow-box for a bit, then email its editor my effusive congratulations. No harm in being over the top; it’s the kind of book you should go over the top for. You can’t put manners on Milkman. It’s a lawless novel, its narrative voice both intimate and aloof, its characters slippery, hilarious one minute, malignant the next. I haven’t stopped going on about it since, and when it won the 2018 Booker, I roared with such joy you’d have thought I won the damn thing. Ignore anyone telling you this novel is “difficult” and dive in. Yes, you’ll be flung about a bit, but great literature will do that to you.
And when you’re sufficiently toughened up, you should read Human Acts, Han Kang’s novel about the 1980 Gwangju Massacre. Each chapter tells the story of a different affected person, indelibly connected to the next – teenage demonstrators murdered by soldiers, imprisoned organisers, bereaved parents. It is elegant, bold and exceptionally moving. Human Acts accomplishes the highest purpose of the novel: to find some beautiful, brutal truth in even the ugliest facets of humanity.
Lisa McInerney’s latest novel is The Blood Miracles
KIT DE WAAL
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, a collection of memoir, essay and poetry, reads like a novel, like a conversation with a friend, like a confession. Beautiful and important, confirmation, as if we needed it, of the ability of women (and this woman in particular) to overcome the most difficult personal circumstances.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July is truly like nothing else I’ve read. An almost too close peek into one woman’s lonely inner life. She fantasises about a love affair with her boss, imagines being loved and important. Then along comes the boss’s daughter, a spoilt waster who lodges with her for a few weeks. And we’re off on a sexy, weird, intimate, hilarious ride. An absolute one-off gem.
Kit de Waal’s latest novel is The Trick to Time. Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, which she edited, is out on May 1st
The most impressive piece of Irish writing I’ve read in many years is Notes to Self by Emilie Pine. In six powerful essays, Pine reveals the difficulties of growing up with an alcoholic father, the pain of longing for a child, and the often-troubling experiences of her teenage years. Books rarely make me cry, but I wept like a baby through much of this. It’s an incredibly brave piece of writing.
My favourite Irish novel of the 21st century is Tender by Belinda McKeon, a beautifully written account of a destructive friendship between a shy straight woman and an extrovert gay man. It’s the book I most often give friends as a gift.
And then there’s The Road Home by Rose Tremain, the story of an eastern European immigrant to Britain and how he struggles to survive in an unwelcoming country. Tremain is one of the world’s great novelists and while this book is 12 years old, it seems even more relevant today as we come to terms with the prejudices and racism that contributed to the Brexit debacle.
John Boyne’s latest book is My Brother’s Name Is Jessica
At the launch of Sinéad Morrissey’s fifth collection of poetry, Parallax, 150 people showed up at the Ulster Museum in south Belfast and I found myself dragooned into selling books to a crowd still buzzing after Morrissey’s spellbinding reading. Contemporary poetry is clearly in very good shape and Morrissey is one of a new generation of female poets whose genius is the only thing they have in common.
The themes explored in Parallax (2013) include Morrissey’s childhood growing up in Co Armagh during the Troubles and poetry reflecting on censorship, violence and domestic life. The highlight of the collection (and of that night in Belfast) is Morrissey’s stunning A Matter Of Life And Death, an autobiographical recounting of the birth of her first child. Morrissey goes into labour as she is propped up on the sofa watching the 1945 David Niven classic film just as “The light is slant and filled with running gold”. A reflection on motherhood and mothers and on new life in the presence of death this is an undiluted masterpiece. Parallax went on to win the TS Eliot Prize.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage The Bones (2011) is a brilliant accounting of a poor black Mississippi family’s attempts to survive Hurricane Katrina. Ward herself went through the hurricane and was denied shelter by a white family on higher ground before a different white family took her in. Reminiscent of William Faulkner’s blackly comic As I Lay Dying Ward’s command of tone and pacing is astonishing. We are in the coastal town of Bois Sauvage just before Katrina hits, with our hero, Esch, 15 and pregnant, and her three brothers hunkered down without any resources or any way out.
Katrina does not bring a direct hit to Mississippi but inevitably the storm surge comes and the flood waters begin to rise. Part thriller, part family drama, Salvage The Bones won the National Book Award just two years after repeated literary rejections had forced Ward to give up on writing and resolve on going to nursing school. We’re lucky she found a publisher for her first book and this her masterpiece. Zora Neale Hurston comparisons are bandied around a little too casually these days but in Ward’s case they are justified. Lyrical, funny, moving Salvage The Bones is a contemporary classic.
Adrian McKinty’s next novel, The Chain, is out in July
What do you get when you strip a life-and-death story of proper names, place names, historic context? Answer: a fairy tale, a parable, a real-life metaphysic. In Anna Burns’s Milkman a war-torn city – we know that it’s Belfast in the early 1970s, but that doesn’t really matter – becomes a haunted forest, through which a lecherous wolf with hypnotic powers, Milkman, stalks an adolescent girl as she dreams of escape. This is a survivalist thriller in which autonomy and innocence, rather than life itself, are the ultimate prizes. A nailed-on masterpiece.
In 2011 Toronto-based journalist Tanya Talaga travelled to Thunder Bay, in the far north west of Ontario, to investigate the deaths of seven children from remote First Nations communities who had been boarded there to attend a government high school. Seven Fallen Feathers, her coldly passionate account of official neglect, police indifference and the liminal lives of indigenous teenagers has implications not only for Canada – which it stunned – but for any society with social or ethnic margins that it prefers to forget. Talaga’s restrained, unhurried, but precise story-telling makes this at once deeply moving and highly readable, a masterful work of non-fiction.
Ed O’Loughlin’s latest novel is Minds of Winter
I’m a slow reader and I like to underline interesting phrases and ideas as I go; for this reason small books are most appealing to me. Foster by Claire Keegan is a perfect small book. Her poetic, rhythmic descriptions of rural Ireland are so wonderfully evocative you can smell the wet manure and turf fires, hear wheels slamming over cattle grids, the rough half-hearted barks of farm dogs. Told through the eyes of an observant child in new surroundings who is at first cautious then receptive of the unexpected kindness and attention she receives from her temporary carers, Foster is a beautiful and extremely moving story of childhood innocence and adult endurance. I’ve read it three times and the closing scene still makes me cry.
The year before last, I broke my small-book rule to embark on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s an astonishingly powerful and expertly written study of friendship, love and unimaginable suffering. Gripping from the outset, this is the sort of book that will force you away from social media and keep you up all night. My copy of A Little Life is almost unreadable now with its crisp, over-dried pages from the blissful hours I spent with it in the bath, utterly absorbed by its brilliance.
Julia Kelly’s latest book is Matchstick Man
Maeve Higgins’ We Have A Good Time, Don’t We? has a special place in my heart because I’m fully convinced it saved me from death-by-hangover on a rowdy trip to Ibiza a few years back. Packed “for the plane” and abandoned in favour of a refreshment or 12, the book found its true mission in the harsh light of day as my pals and I took turns reading from the Cobh comedian’s collection of essays, the curtains drawn against the judgmental Balearic sun. We laughed so hard I’m surprised the Policia weren’t called to investigate. Higgins’ self-deprecating, woman-centred essays are as thoughtful as they are hilarious and it’s a book I’ve returned to again and again.
It’s tricky to talk about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving away the twist. When the book – a gripping, funny and heartbreaking take on family, identity and a young girl growing up “different” – was published in 2014 many reviews came with spoiler alerts because it was nigh on impossible not to give it away. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, seek the book out and lose yourself in it. I remember gasping when it was revealed, early on around the eighty-page mark and marveling at how Fowler had misdirected me in this extraordinary tale of two sisters, raised together but poles apart.
Emer McLysaght is the co-author with Sarah Breen of The Importance of Being Aisling
There’s something shimmering and hallucinatory in the long delta perspectives of Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. A young woman brings her children on a road trip to Parchman farm to pick up her paroled lover and the ghosts of black america gather about them whispering and insistent.
It feels as if Anna Burns’ Milkman is the context for everything, and we’re all caught in the sweep of that strange radar, northern hurts lit up in the dark, affinities we’d never seen before suddenly aglow. It’s a good time. There is a sweet cosmopolitan music coming from all over the country, lately from Mullingar, with Nicole Flattery’s cool, phantom prose in Show Them A Good Time, and startling newcomer Caragh Maxwell.
Eoin McNamee’s latest novel is The Vogue
Hurting God by Rita Ann Higgins ( Salmon Poetry) is sharp and magnetic. Higgins is her sardonic best in this collection and while well known for her poetry, this “Part Essay, Part Rhyme” is her first dive into prose. It’s acerbic and brilliant. I love this book. It challenges so much of Irish life, observes minute happenings and gives a voice to the voiceless. It is truly original. The collection faced some controversy and book pulping when first published, which can’t be an easy position for any writer.
Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond (The Stinging Fly) is a deliciously handsome collection of stories and, like Higgins, Bennett is an incredibly observant writer. I remember when and where I first read Pond. Bennett’s sharp meditations on life and the utter simplicity of daily happenings are mind bending. I’ve reread it many times since. There is such exquisite beauty in the way she writes the ordinariness of the everyday, coupled with the anxiety of the mind. The writing is wonderful.
Both Bennett and Higgins move so far in a single sentence, from the first utterance, to where the reader ends up. They are edgy, unique and laugh-out-loud funny, while maintaining depth. I’d love to be starting both again for the first time.
(Can I also, cheekily, highly recommend two other favourites, June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies?)
Elaine Feeney’s latest collection is Rise
Much acclaim has rightly been heaped on Edna O’Brien throughout the years, most notably with The Country Girls trilogy as Dublin’s One City One Book. I came to Edna’s work through her short stories and it was her collection Saints and Sinners which won me to her voice and style. Her short story Shovel Kings in the collection about the memories of an Irish navvy labouring in London proved to be the foundation block upon which I wrote my first book. Saints and Sinners is much more than just a short story collection it is another mark in the score card of a genius.
Zadie Smith’s WhiteTeeth exposed me to a different side of the UK, the rich multicultural heritage and intersectionality of our nearest neighbour. White Teeth is not only an amazing book; it began my life long intellectual crush on Zadie and all she does.
John Connell is author of The Cow Book
We will always need novels that explore the complexity of women’s lives. Jennifer Johnston’s beautiful – and beautifully short – Naming the Stars traces the friendship between an employer and her housekeeper, who find themselves living out the end of their lives together in a formerly grand old house. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is no more and no less than the story of one woman’s life, but so masterfully told that you feel like you’ve lived and breathed it. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s new novel, The Narrow Land, takes as its subject Jo, the wife of the American painter Edward Hopper, an unhappy and often unpleasant woman whose belligerent heart is handled with the utmost tenderness by Dwyer Hickey.
The Narrow Land shows once more what a very fine writer Christine Dwyer Hickey is, and my choice of Irish novel of the century (so far) is a previous novel of hers, The Cold Eye of Heaven. The story of one Dublin man’s life, told backwards, it’s a wonder of literary engineering, and for all the fuss about male writers who manage to create credible female characters, here’s a female writer who has created a great male character – I adored it. As for the novel of the century by an international author, I nominate Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. A small-town Maine schoolteacher, wife and mother, Olive is as human a character as you will find outside of your own family, and impossible not to love. The sequel to Olive Kitteridge is due out later this year and will be much anticipated by her legion of fans, including myself.
Kathleen MacMahon’s latest novel is The Long, Hot Summer
Elske Rahill’s brutal debut novel made Trinity College and its environs seem like one of the tighter circles of hell. Between Dog and Wolf captures the desolation and darkness of youth as forcefully as any novel I’ve read. Three college students desperately search for a way through the psychic underworld, harming themselves and each other through reckless decisions and nasty sex. I’m making it sound rather distressing, and it is, but it’s also readable as hell, insightful, and superbly written.
Most punk of contemporary French authors, Virginie Despentes evolved from the misandrous nihilism of her youth to produce, in her late forties, a capacious, rambling novel of bohemian life in contemporary Paris that’s a lot fun to read. The eponymous hero of Vernon Subutex 1, translated by Frank Wynne, is a former record store owner laid low by the rise of digitally shareable music, reduced to crashing on friends’ couches and drinking beer while he tries to sort his life out. The novel is a portrait of economic decline and societal disarray, but it has the effect of making recession seem not without its silver lining, as the bourgeois fixation on status falls away and a sense of communality emerges. It gets sloppy towards the end, but the loose threads should come together when I read the two remaining instalments of the Vernon Subutex trilogy.
Rob Doyle’s latest fiction is This is the Ritual. He also edited The Other Irish Tradition: An Irish Fiction Anthology
Despite much dithering over a favourite title from an Irish woman writer since the turn of the millennium, my eventual pick, Marian Keyes’s This Charming Man (2008), is an obvious choice to anyone who knows me, because it’s the book I’ve insisted they absolutely-positively-have-to read. It’s both a superb example of the very best “chick lit” can do – women-centric stories that explore careers and relationships and the problems that might beset either, with an upbeat (though not saccharine) ending – and a magnificent work of social and political satire.
Keyes’s ninth novel invites us into the world of several women connected to charismatic and newly-engaged politician Paddy de Courcy. As his star rises, we learn more about the psychological and physical abuse he’s inflicted on these women, each of whom is in crisis even before learning of his new love. Heartbroken Lola retreats to a seaside village (known for attracting heartbroken women, who often take up a craft) and stumbles into a curious deal with her local dole officer, as well as bonding with the residents of “Alco’s Corner”, who raise their drinks to de Valera every day at 4.30. Tough-as-nails (she tries, anyway) journalist Grace is pestering Lola to tell the truth about Paddy, alongside dealing with a fractious relationship with her partner and a fragile twin sister. Said sister, Marnie, is clearly in a bad way, waking to bruises and a scowling husband, and still haunted by her adolescent romance with Paddy. Alongside this, unsettling snippets of violence towards unnamed women appear, and slowly we piece these – and the many other threads – together.
The many “heavy” subjects tackled – in addition to domestic violence, there’s also grief, depression, addiction and cancer – are carefully counterbalanced with the zanier elements, a trait of all Keyes’s work but particularly evident here. There is humour and empathy and shrewdness; there is also fiercely skilful storytelling at work.
One of the great fortunes of my life has been to have grown up at a time when fiction about queer women was not simply available but – gasp! – mainstream. In my late teens I read not only young-adult fiction about lesbian and bisexual girls (the fact that bisexuality was even acknowledged is still relatively unusual) but also encountered the work of Emma Donoghue (at the time, I didn’t even know we had Irish lesbians apart from that nun on Big Brother) and Sarah Waters. Andrew Davies had just adapted Tipping the Velvet into a BBC miniseries, and I bought the DVD as a gift to myself for my 17th birthday. (Nothing says “happy birthday” like cross-dressing Victorians.)
Much as I loved the music-hall setting of Velvet, and the eerie prison vibes of Affinity, Fingersmith (2002) is the very best of her three Victorian novels. Orphan Sue, raised amongst thieves, and isolated Maud, obedient servant to her uncle, are archetypes we might find in Dickens and elsewhere, but as their unlikely friendship – initially intended as part of a dastardly plot – develops, Waters breathes fresh life into these characters. With a delicious twist (Gone Girl, eat your heart out), a no-holds-barred account of the darker aspects of the era (including incarceration and pornography), and clever, vivid writing, this sets the standard for historical fiction about women in love.
Claire Hennessy’s latest novel is Like Other Girls. She reviews YA fiction for The Irish Times
When I first read Transmissions, Elaine Cosgrove’s debut collection, my experience of the world was refreshed and entirely heightened. These were poems, or glimpses (or ruminations), that decoded my unspoken or half-formed thoughts. They felt specific to my own experience too: catching my reflection in a bus window; being hungover; listening to the radio; visiting; hanging around; listening to music; texting… This is a book whose gorgeous poems are full of sudden left turns, double-take revelations and revelatory ponderances [“What does the connection do when it’s gone?”]. It is a formally playful book too, interrogating function and meaning. In various poetic forms and modes, Cosgrove shows us the macrocosm in the microcosm of a moment: the wonder in the everyday. My experience of the world is better for having read it, and for re-reading it (again and again).
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson starts with translations of basic fragments of ancient Greek, all that remain of Stesichoros’s story of Geryon (the red-winged monster of Greek myth). Carson translates, posits, re-translates, and pushes off from there; you could say that you follow the course of the story of Geryon in a sequence of astonishing, thoughtful episodes. I cannot overstate how beautiful and strange and staggering this work is to read. Events in Geryon’s life seem to occur both in mythological time (Ancient Greece perhaps) and in 20th-century America. Carson’s time-bending is wondrous and somehow feels true. Geryon, through photography, sculpture, memory and writing, makes his existence a work-in-progress “autobiography”. Throughout this “novel in verse”, language comes apart and is reformed; is fractured and re-constituted: “The word each blew towards him and came apart on the wind… Bits of words drifted past Geryon’s brain like ash.”
In ethereal shards of text - both specific and abstract, with language and meaning atomsplit and formed afresh – Carson transcends notions of form. Sentences and images flourish, exude a feeling. That is all that matters.
Danny Denton’s debut novel is The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow. He is guest editing the summer edition of The Stinging Fly
I’d like to introduce my two writers to one another, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Harryette Mullen, because I don’t think they’ve ever met on the page or off it. They are alike enough and different enough to get along perfectly: they’re almost the same age, and the African-American Mullen is also slightly Irish-American: beyond several generations of mixed-race freed slaves, way back in the eighteenth century, the white slave-owning patriarch of the family, James Mullins, is said to have come from Ireland. The poetry books I’ve chosen also have a family resemblance: Ní Dhomhnaill’s Fifty-Minute Mermaid (Gallery Books, 2007), translated into English by Paul Muldoon, originally published as Na Murúcha a Thriomaigh in Cead Aighnis (1998), and Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002; a finalist for the National Book Award). In distinct ways, both books are witty interrogations of heritage, the heritage of mermaids and of slaves, and critiques of the abuse of power.
Tyrannies small and large abound in Ní Dhomhnaill’s book. The merfolk in The Fifty-Minute Mermaid only wash their hair in daylight because of a fairy abduction from long ago: “Úsáidtear an scéal seo, fiú sa lá atá inniu ann / chun scanradh an diabhail bhuí / a chur ar na maighdeanacha mara óga” (“This story is still being told, to this very day, / to scare the living daylights / out of the young females of the species”). The mermaid mother responds inadequately and inappropriately to her daughter’s account of clerical sexual abuse: “An sagart bocht, nach fear / é siúd chomh maith le duine” (“Oh, the poor priest, isn’t he a man / like any other?”).Yet in spite of the critique that drives the book, Ní Dhomhnaill takes pleasure in a pseudo-anthropological commentary on mer-culture, such as a list of the books the merfolk did not write: An Chistin Fhomhuireach, / An tOileán a bhí Faoi Dhraíocht, / Seanscéalta ón dTír-fó-Thoinn (Submarine Cuisine, / The Enchanted Isle, / Legends from the Land under the Sea).
Mullen’s critique takes the form of linguistic play. The generating impulse of her book is an erotic encounter with the dictionary: “In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative…groping in the dark for an alluring word… is the poet’s nocturnal mission.” The alphabet determines the order of poems, and the “D” poem, Denigration, uses every word with the syllable “nig” except the notorious “n-word” to expose the insults of racism: “Did we surprise our teachers who had niggling doubts about the picayune brains of small black children…?...If I disagree with your beliefs, do you chalk it up to my negligible powers of discrimination….?” The “W” poem modifies airline language to reveal an indifference to human values: “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives…Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments…” Reversing the colours of American racism, another poem reframes the Goldilocks story: “…a trespassing towheaded pre-teen barged into the rustic country cottage of a nuclear family of anthropomorphic bruins.”
I love all these provocative, subversive poems and their wild fantasies, and I’m grateful to their authors, who are rebels, wits, and kin.
Lucy McDiarmid’s latest work is The Vibrant House: Irish Writing and Domestic Space (edited with Rhona Richman Kenneally)
There’s an embarrassment of riches to be found in books by women since 2000, both in international and Irish literature. The following are two that leapt from my shelves into my hands as I was thinking about what to choose:
“Tommy Guptil had once owned a dairy farm, which he’d inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.”
So opens Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible: a collection of nine interconnected stories that map the interior universes of the ordinary citizens who inhabit the town of Amgash, home also to the protagonist of Strout’s earlier novel My Name is Lucy Barton.
The tone is quiet and intimate; the town is vividly evoked. The characters who live there are illuminated with devastating clarity: their small joys, their disappointments and betrayals. They circle around each other, planets around the sun of Amgash.
Nobody is spared. In controlled, limpid prose, Strout explores loneliness, the failure of love, the invisibility of older lives. Everybody has a secret: some hidden desire that pulses beneath an ordinary, unassuming appearance.
And poverty is everwhere: both economic and spiritual.
Anything is Possible – an ironic title – is beautifully written. Its characters, including the quietly decaying rural town, are unforgettable.
Equally unforgettable, though for very different reasons, is Anna Burns’s recent Booker Prize-winning Milkman. “The Day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast,” it begins, “and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
This novel makes no concessions to the superficial reader. One of its many joys – apart from its originality, its inventiveness, its moments of laugh-out-loud-uncomfortable black humour – Milkman is filled with long, digressive sentences that insist upon the reader’s full attention. And such insistence is amply repaid, over and over again.
Milkman evokes all the oppressions of communities in conflict: conflict in which everything is reduced to black and white – or orange and green. There is no space for nuance, no quiet place where understanding “the other” might begin to flourish, no room for compromise to grow.
The unnamed narrator is a young woman who prefers reading 19th-century novels – even while walking – to living in the present. Her difference from those around her makes her an object of suspicion, derision. Her survival depends on her ability to negotiate the oppressions of her own community and that of the wider society.
By turns sinister, reflective and yes, funny, Milkman is a joy in its own unique and demanding ways.
Catherine Dunne’s latest novel is The Years That Followed
In honour of International Women’s Day, I exercise my right to choose more than one author for this article. Here are four wonderful books by Irish female writers published in the last decade: Claire Keegan’s Foster (2010), Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets (2015), Anne Enright’s The Green Road (2015) and Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s Twelve Thousand Days (2018). Foster is a beautifully observed story about a young girl sent to live with relations while her mother has yet another baby. McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs features stories from the margins, each of which captures the lonely voice of the short story form. The Green Road is the modern Irish family dissected with Enright’s trademark wit and intelligence – and a not so modern Irish mammy at the centre of it all. Ní Dhuibhe’s recent memoir on the life and death of her husband, the Swedish academic Bo Almqvist, is stark and moving and a masterclass in structure. On the international front, I’ll be an obedient little woman and pick only one book – Jade Sharma’s Problems (published by Tramp Press in 2018), a brutally funny tour-de-force about a New York heroin user in her 20s whose life is falling apart.
Sarah Gilmartin is arts journalist. She reviews debut fiction for The Irish Times
“Alone in my cave, / I quest, striking matches / as I go,” Dorothy Molloy writes in her debut poetry collection Hare Soup (2004) and that is the sensation as you move through it, of being cocooned in the darkness but then striking upon these luminous images. The collection is steeped in sex and religious iconography, and at times has the delightfully kitsch quality of Pierre et Gilles, with its “flaming hearts” and “red cheeks”, its frou frou lace and plush and velveteen: “our hearts come straight from the butcher’s hook” she writes in Family Get-together. The damp heat of Molloy’s imagination explores the body erotic but also the body abused. The language has a hypnotic fairground appeal, and her mordant humour resonates throughout. This strange mix of deft lyricism and dark comedy makes it irresistible - life as a carnival of sorts, all swirling colours and frightening masks and hidden corners. Our latent fears and desires exposed, like in that Tunnel of Terror in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sadly Molloy died at the age of 62, just weeks before the book was published, but this book marks “a stir / among the stars / a cosmic shift; / a making way.”
Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan (2018) takes us from her youth through to the birth of her son and the death of her father in this collection of three long poems. In the first of the three, she is set down in her youth in New York, eager to lose her innocence, but finds that “nothing seems to happen” over and over: “CTRL+N is jammed in the spreadsheet of your mind”. Eliot’s Prufrock lurks throughout, in its cadences and its preoccupations with time and entropy. “Every day waking is absurdity,” she writes “fumbling for the snooze button”. “Coffee to be brewed,” as with Prufrock’s life measured out with coffee spoons. The sense of estrangement is beautifully realised in her encounter with an ex: “It is all the same: / He turns you through positions, expertly restaging old routine.” “The face in the toilet mirror,” she writes in the second poem, “could be anyone”. Ice and snow recur throughout, as Sullivan casts a cold resolute eye on the nature of existence. In her astute observations of life events, not trivialised but presented as mundane – a caesarean is “like dying at the hairdressers”, and “everyone else is vaguely embarrassed by: / By the way the person dying is enjoying it at last” – she confronts the reality of what we are and what will survive of us with frank and breathtaking honesty.
Rebecca O’Connor’s debut novel is He Is Mine and I Have No Other. She edeits The Moth magazine
Leanne O’Sullivan’s A Quarter of an Hour (Bloodaxe, 2018) is a set of love poems, a meditation on language, and also a delicate and urgent testament to the natural world and the body’s place within it. Charting her husband’s illness and recovery, O’Sullivan’s work is lucid and otherworldly: “I closed my eyes and he woke inside me.” These poems are so memorable in their myth-making, and so deft in their handling of intimate experience, that they stay in the mind long after reading. Brave not only for the depth of their searching, but also for their honest and unabashed joy, these are poems that deserve a wide readership.
Further afield, Jos Charles’s Feeld (Milkweed Editions, 2018) is a beguiling work, reimagining a new language somewhere between Middle English and the digital world of the 21st century. With that, Charles manages an excavation of language and trans* identity: “being tran is a unique kinde off organe / i am speeching materialie / i am speeching abot hereditie”. I’d also like to give a mention to Layli Long Soldier’s debut WHEREAS (Graywolf, 2016), which still astounds me with its brilliance, complexity and its formal intelligence. These are books that command their space, and are radical in the newness of their endeavour.
Lantern by Seán Hewitt was published last month
More than two decades ago, the writer Barbara Ehrenreich took a series of America’s lowest-paying jobs, to investigate how workers survived on such small wages. She worked undercover with hotel maids, waitresses, and house-cleaners, many of them immigrants. What she found was that those who work hardest, doing the longest hours and the most physical tasks, were barely surviving; their entire lives depending on the next uncertain paycheque. Ehrenrich’s masterful book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (2001) has always been important, but in 2019, under an American president who wishes to construct a wall to keep these immigrant workers out, it is more relevant than ever.
Short can be as powerful as long. Notes to Self (2018), these six essays by Emilie Pine, barely total 45,000 words, half of a “standard” book length, but what she says within them are worth twice of most other books. She writes with cool viscerality about trying, and failing to have a baby; about choosing to attend to her alcoholic father in his abject Greek hospital bed, even though he has betrayed her and her sister multiple times as a father; about being an academic in a academic world that demands more and more and yet more of those who work within them. These are beautiful, gasp-making, and hard-won essays.
Elsewhere: One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel by Rosita Boland is published in May
I’m not sure anything has shook me the way Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing did (Galley Beggar Press, 2013). It’s wildly creative, so fresh, formally complex but feels honest and without contrivance. Books don’t often make me bawl crying but I was in bits during this (and then again more publicly when I went to see the stage adaptation with Aoife Duffin).
McBride is a genius, and if for whatever reason you haven’t got round to reading this yet, please do – it’s one of the most important books an Irish writer has ever produced, which is really saying something.
I could pick Tramp Press books all day long but honestly I’m not sure if I’ve loved any book in years more than Problems by Jade Sharma. Sharma is a writer living in and working from New York and Problems is infused with the character of the city. Her protagonist, Maya, is painfully upfront about her life, both outer and inner and her voice is so great, sharp and funny. It’s compulsively readable, a genuine tour-de-force. I think everyone who picks up this book loves it but it might particularly suit you if you liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
Sarah Davis-Goff is co-founder of Tramp Press. Her debut novel Last Ones Left Alive has just been published.
There seems no more appropriate book to endorse on International Women’s Day than Martina Devlin’s Truth and Dare which contains eleven short stories about women who through the force of their independent personalities and commitment to social change, forged pathways for others to follow. Devlin possesses the power in this work and in other of her historical novels to humanise history and find spaces between the facts where a rich imagination can go to work. The opening story about Mary Ann McCracken is particularly powerful and a welcome reminder that Belfast was once a city synonymous with radical politics.
Anyone who attends literary events knows that the audience will be overwhelmingly female and consist of generally older women. This demographic of gender and age however is underrepresented in contemporary literary fiction so yes let us give thanks for the work of Anita Brookner. Brookner’s reputation has often endured criticism – she is supposedly indifferent to the zeitgeist, her palette too repetitive in colour and tone. But she is an elegant writer with a precise psychological insight and a highly talented chronicler of the life not lived. She published her first novel at the age of 53 then went on to produce over twenty more. The best probably belong to the last century but Strangers in 2008 was shortlisted for the James Tait Memorial Prize. She is also responsible for that most wonderful of literary quotations when talking about her books – “I’m not very popular, because they’re bleak and they’re mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I’m only writing fiction. I’m not making munitions, so I think it’s acceptable.”
David Park’s latest novel is Travelling in a Strange Land
One of the best recent books, by an Irish woman writer, is the memoir Twelve Thousand Days by author and folklorist Eilís Ní Dhuibhne. I read a lot of nonfiction and this book stood out as an un-put-downable among recent memoirs. Twelve Thousand Days is a story of inter-generational marriage, shared intellect and passion for language and folklore, as well as the failings of our health system. It’s a moving, honest, beautifully written and dignified book, and Ní Dhuibhne manages to weave a novel-like narrative around her own extraordinary love story, happy marriage and, subsequently, the painful death of her beloved husband.
My international pick by a woman writer is Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, a novel about sensitive Tess who works as a waiter in a top restaurant in Manhattan. Anyone who knows the restaurant scene will recognise the complex pecking orders and allegiances, tribes within tribes, unlikely friendships and couplings, and doomed crushes described. Tess – sweetly naive, in contrast to the cynicism of her colleagues - gets a swift education in this parallel world of skilled misfits when she falls for enigmatic, broken Jake, and is mentored by cultured oddball Simone. Danler writes with passion about food and wine, and is good on sensuality, the upside-down nature of restaurant life, the cruel antics of some staff, and the dominance of drugs and alcohol as coping tools. An impressive debut.
Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel is Becoming Belle
Some books pull back the curtain and show you the man operating the levers behind – in 2000 Naomi Klein’s world-changing No Logo did that. I was 27 at the time and I should perhaps have known a little more about what made the world actually tick. She showed to me that I didn’t. It’s her masterpiece on aggressive capitalistic brands, why they came into existence and how they were exploiting workers from sweatshops in Asia to fast-food joints in America, destroying their competition. It became a gateway drug to dozens of books I’ve read since.
My Irish choice was much, much harder as it’s been a genuinely game-changing few years for Irish women writers. Still, I settled on Sara Baume’s magnificent debut Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither; the story of a 57-year-old reclusive unnamed narrator in a rural Irish town who, after the death of his father with whom he’d been living alone all his life, gets a one-eyed dog from the pound. It completely blindsided me and I pressed it into the hands of people all that year. It was written to be read and reread aloud, and I did.
Rick O’Shea runs the Rick O’Shea Book Club, co-hosts the Eason Book Club, and was a Costa Book Awards judge
Since the year 2000, Anne Enright has published an unholy trinity of literary fiction with such power that it is impossible to choose between them. It is an unusual thing to experience writing that is so pleasing in its telling without ever fawning to the reader; there is no doubt in my mind that every single word in these three novels was deliberately chosen to have maximum impact whilst still appearing effortless. The Gathering (2007), The Forgotten Waltz (2011) and The Green Road (2015) are works of grace where the grand design of each book is so carefully executed that there is not one ounce of fat to cut away. These are stories that are uniquely Irish and yet speak of universal human truths that cut to the core. The ending of The Forgotten Waltz is so pitch perfect that it comes to my mind again and again even now years after reading.
When calling to mind international women writers whose post-millennial work has meant a lot to me there are two slim novels that immediately rush to mind: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) and Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2018). Strout exposes the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship in a deceptively simple hospital visit to Lucy Barton by her mother that is all consuming. In Tin Man, Winman offers a nuanced and tender story of friendship, the loves of our lives, and grief that is exquisite and yet completely unsentimental. Both of these books I read in one sitting. Both left me reeling. And seldom in life have I recommended books to more people than I have these two incredible works.
Helen Cullen’s debut novel is The Lost Letters of William Woolf
International Women’s Day, for someone growing up in a communist era, brings a different memory, so I think it may be befitting to choose Irish Finnish author Arja Kajermo’s The Iron Age. Set in post-second World War Finland, overshadowed by the power of the Soviet Union, the novel explores a family’s struggle toward a brighter future through a young girl’s eyes, and presents history as the darkest fairytale.
Yiyun Li’s latest book is Where Reasons End
There is something risky about the way Claire Keegan in Walk the Blue Fields locates her stories in the private moments of Irish rural life, a setting of familiar and tropey grimness. These are the places that you see from train windows and wonder what the unsettling emptiness of the fields says about the happiness to be found there. It is the land of the big wedding, the country sergeant, the rueful priest, the dog in the yard, where nature is a workload and where people leave behind the people who feel left behind. But these are no set pieces. The stories are suspenseful and psychologically astute; the dialogue is not to be trusted; and the big decisions that characters make are mishandled, with the consequences aching over a lifetime. The unfinished business she attends to here so deftly is to bear witness and “lift the lid of silence” on the domestic injustices born by women everywhere who are abused and deprived of the love and opportunity they deserve.
Najla Jraissaty Khoury spent her time during the civil war in Lebanon touring with her theatre company in the refugee camps, air raid shelters and remote villages, visiting the very margins of a broken society under threat. There she spoke to the storytellers, the women who had preserved an age-old oral tradition from the preliterate era. She asked them about their favourite folk tales from childhood and made field recordings on tape from which the 30 tales in Pearls on a Branch, translated from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, have been collected, verbatim, in this English translation from 2014.
These are stories told by women to women and largely about women. They are timeless morality tales in the spirit of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm, in which women often transcend their modest background using their wit and intelligence to prevail over inimical forces, both magical and worldly. While there are hallmarks of the Arabic storytelling tradition in the recurring invocation of God’s will and the self-effacing, self-doubting narrators, these stories involve universal themes recognisable from traditions across the world. The collection and translation of these stories is a singular achievement that deserves recognition from a wider Western readership.
Rónán Hession’s debut novel is Leonard and Hungry Paul
Oona Frawley’s Flight (Tramp Press, 2014) is one of the most refreshing, challenging and stimulating new voices in Irish (women’s) fiction. Sandrine is a Zimbabwean woman in Ireland confronted with responsibility of caring for an elderly Irish couple. Frawley speaks compassionately of the mutual alienations of the threesome, the issues of identity, belonging and kindred in a non-judgemental but compelling and insistent style that both disturbs and enlightens. She should write more for us.
Ersi Sotiropoulos’s What’s Left of the Night was published in Greek in 2015 and in translation by Karen Emmerich in 2018 (New Vessel Press). In 1897 the young Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy and his brother are passing through a phantasmagoric Paris. Sotiropoulos, one of Greece’s most senior novelists, tenderly demonstrates her empathy with the poet’s homosexuality and his anxiety for his emergent literary reputation, set against fin-de-siècle decadence and pretentiousness. An exciting read for anyone interested in the mind and character of the enigmatic and reclusive Cavafy.
Richard Pine’s latest book is Minor Mythologies