The best books of 2020: As chosen by Irish authors
Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, John Banville, Sarah Moss and others pick their favourites
My favourite new non-fiction book this year was Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain. It’s a wild story about a veteran of the first World War named Maurice Wilson who, despite never having climbed anything more demanding than a flight of stairs, decided that he was going to fly solo to Everest, and climb the mountain alone.
This was 1934, almost two decades before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary finally cracked it; and so, obviously, he didn’t succeed – he died half way up – but the story of his failure is far more interesting, to this reader at least, than that of any mere success would have been. Caesar is a masterful storyteller, and he imbues this narrative of doomed adventurism with real compassion and intrigue.
I didn’t read an awful lot of new fiction this year, but the novel that seems to have most stayed with me is Earthlings by the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata. It has a similar affectless eeriness to her previous novel, the wildly successful (and brilliant) Convenience Store Woman, but where that book was all uncanny control, this one is pure, demented abandon. It’s not the darkness of the events Murata describes that is most disturbing, but the blank chirpiness of the narrative voice with her narrator relates them. There were times I couldn’t decide whether I hated it or whether it was genius, but either way I couldn’t stop reading it.
Mark O’Connell’s latest book is Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back
Actress by Anne Enright is a brilliant, lyrical, powerful novel. Centred around a mother-daughter relationship and the world of theatre, it’s dazzlingly sharp and unnervingly intimate.
Another standout was The Last Day at Bowen’s Court by Eibhear Walshe. Set between wartime London, north Cork and Dublin, this reimagining of Elizabeth Bowen’s love affair with the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie is richly textured and compelling.
I stayed up until the small hours finishing Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. It begins with a young black woman being falsely accused of kidnapping the white child she’s babysitting. It’s a smart, funny book that as well as being a page turner explores complex dynamics of race and class.
I loved Cathy Sweeney’s short story collection, Modern Times, an entertaining and magnificently weird book that buzzes with originality. And staying with short stories, The Art of the Glimpse, edited by Sinead Gleeson, is a triumph, a gloriously varied rewriting of the canon of the Irish short story.
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel, The Art of Falling, will be published in January 2021
Approaching Eye Level by Vivian Gornick was the book I found myself returning to many times this year. An exquisite collection of essays about Manhattan, friendship, politics, loneliness, social life, private life, it was written long before lockdown but seemed to have much to say on that subject and many others.
Donal Ryan’s magnificent novel Strange Flowers is so beautiful and haunting. Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat is a spellbinding work about the connections a great poem can unearth. I found John Banville’s novel Snow captivating and immensely atmospheric.
I was delighted to see Helena Close become the first Irish writer to be nominated for the Carnegie Medal, for her exceptional YA novel The Gone Book.
I never thought I would see a truly readable, edgy version of that tiresome old slugfest Beowulf, but thanks to the brilliant translation by Maria Dahvana Headley, we now have one.
Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy is a compellingly written, slightly depressing survey of contemporary nationalisms.
Recently I read the proofs of two wonderful books that will be published in 2021: Louise Kennedy’s stunning collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac and Laura McKenna’s powerful historical fiction debut, Words to Shape My Name.
Joseph O’Connor’s novel Shadowplay is published by Vintage. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick
No year in which Kathleen Jamie publishes a new book is all bad, even 2020. Surfacing, her third essay collection, is about participating in archaeological digs in Alaska and Orkney, where climate change is destroying prehistoric sites as fast as they can be excavated. Jamie always observes precisely, with curiosity and love of the world, and she writes the natural world better than anyone else.
I also loved two clever dark comedies about women surviving Trump’s America, Writers and Lovers by Lily King and Weather by Jenny Offill. Literary travels being the only kind available, I was delighted to discover Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviours, about siblings growing up in Hawaii, drawn both by the skills and beliefs of the pre-industrial past and by the promise of success in America.
I’ll be giving friends Abigail by Magda Szabo, published in Hungary in 1970 and newly translated into English by Len Rix, set in a strict girls’ boarding school during the second World War.
Sarah Moss’s latest novel is Summerwater. She is assistant professor of creative writing at UCD
Martin Amis has always been a risk-taker, and he takes some whopping ones in Inside Story. This autobiographical novel, funny, tender and captivatingly intelligent, concentrates on three of the author’s lost loves: Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens, and the succubus who haunted his life, the ineffable creature he calls Phoebe Phelps.
If anyone can bring readers back to the serious novel, it is Amis. Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life by John Gray has more weight to it than its slyly playful title might suggest. Gray is one of the most incisive, and one of the wisest, of contemporary philosophers, and this book is as enlightening as it is delightful. And speaking of delight, two superb poetry collections, Robin Robertson’s spirit-haunted Grimoire: New Scottish Folk Tales and Michael Longley’s luminous The Candlelight Master, both demonstrate how much poetry matters even in the most terrible of times.
John Banville’s latest novel is Snow
This year all I wanted to read were books with heart, from Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s glowing A Ghost in the Throat to the melancholy sweetness of Hilary Fannin’s The Weight of Love. Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies is a hymn to male friendship. The first half captures swagger and the seriousness of teenage years, in all its nostalgic glory. The second half is about death, but it somehow refuses to be about loss. This is one of those wholehearted, unrepeatable books where a writer brings his all to the page.
Pre-pandemic, there was A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux, which details her first sexual encounter, in 1958, and its long aftermath. I came late to this French writer, who is becoming better known in English translation, and the shock of recognition has not subsided. Every so often you realise there is a great writer out there, a whole world you have yet to explore, and with someone this good, you want to take it slowly.
Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress. She is professor of creative writing at UCD
The deaths of Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon have left a void in the lives of their readers. Both completed a new collection of poetry before they died – Eavan Boland’s is The Historians; Derek Mahon’s is Washing Up – and both books make clear what marvellous poets they are. The first poem in Boland’s book, The Fire Gilder, is one of the best Irish poems of the past half-century. In Mahon’s book, wry wisdom and an autumnal tone are governed by a magisterial control of the line and the stanza.
The Arms Crisis of 1970 by Michael Heney is an indisputable, forensic interpretation of the events of 1970. Its conclusions are difficult for many to deal with: journalists and historians persisted in getting this story wrong. As a result of this book, political life in the 1970s in the South will have to be revisited. Heney’s book is impressive for its methodology, and is indispensable for anyone interested in what actually happened 50 years ago.
Colm Tóibín’s latest work is Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce
I’ve been recommending Kathleen MacMahon’s Nothing But Blue Sky to anyone who’ll listen since I bought a copy based on an Instagram pal saying she’d read it in a day. I usually take “couldn’t put it down” and the more visceral “devoured it!” recommendations with a pinch of salt but when it comes to this book I can appreciate falling into a closed system of just wanting to finish it. It’s about grief and eulogising and getting into the “habit of happiness” and I just loved it.
Patrick Freyne’s OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea was more moving that I ever expected and somehow funnier than I assumed. His collection of autobiographical essays was one I discussed on many government-mandated turns around the local park with friends. Meanwhile the short narrative structure of Sarah Baume’s Handiwork was like being given the gift of poetry, essay, autobiography and an Artist’s Way-esque crash course in creativity and self-discovery.
Finally, I tend to keep it non-fiction when it comes to audiobooks and the fact that I’m on my third listen of Adam Buxton’s Ramble Book speaks to its comforting humour and innovative delivery.
Emer McLysaght is co-author with Sarah Breen of the bestselling Aisling series
I was reluctant to embark on Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, knowing from its subject that it would have to be set in a time of plague and that the eponymous child would die. There’s enough of that around in the news. But O’Farrell’s conjuring of the world of the family Shakespeare left at home in Stratford while he was inventing a new world in London is just beautiful. It says everything for her achievement that the book is overshadowed neither by our current crisis nor by Shakespeare himself. It makes its own way into the mind, slowly, sweetly and with infinite tenderness.
The rescuing of the great storyteller Peig Sayers from the bored contempt of generations of school students is one of the noblest causes in Irish letters. Any remaining doubts about her status as an artist are banished by Bo Almqvist and Pádraig Ó Héalaí wonderful bilingual edition of interviews she gave in 1952, complete with two CDs of the recordings, Níl Deireadh Ráite/Not the Final Word.
Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan’s Champagne Football: John Delaney and the Betrayal of Irish Football is a superb piece of investigative journalism, in which a tale of tawdry venality is told with wit, verve, and just the right amount of disbelief.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest work is Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles
Elaine Feeney’s darkly witty As You Were proves her gift for writing real and sympathetic Irish women. I was more than happy to spend time reviewing Paul Mendez’ Rainbow Milk, an ambitious, clever and candid debut. I was drawn in by Emma Cline’s story collection Daddy – all the generally awful characters corrupted by sex, fame and large amounts of money. Those particular malaises now seem rather quaint and sweet.
Like everyone else, I tried (and usually failed) to spend less time on the internet; refreshing live news feeds; feeling my brain liquidise in actual time. I searched for a voice that was the antithesis to Twitter, and I found it in Vivian Gornick. Her essay collection, Approaching Eye Level, reissued by Daunt Books this year, is droll, disarmingly honest and, most refreshingly, sane. I return to her work again and again.
Nicole Flattery is the author of Show Them a Good Time
David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet is an important and eloquent historical witness statement from the 93-year-old about the planet’s destruction during his 60-year career documenting the natural world. It is bleak history, but he also proposes solutions to repair the damage wrought.
Mark Honigsbaum’s The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19 was first published last year and has been updated to include a chapter on Covid-19, but I prefer the original subtitle: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. It is a sobering reminder that new viruses will continue to cause havoc even as science becomes more sophisticated.
Rosita Sweetman’s Feminism Backwards is a spirited account of the quest to advance women’s rights in Ireland that also acts as a reminder of the veracity of the assertion of the late poet Eavan Boland: “Feminism in its true sense is no more than the attempt to restore to the human community part of its own dignity”.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s next book, Between Two Hells: the Irish Civil War, will be published in 2021
It goes without saying that choosing a small handful of books from a year that has seen notable and forcible fiction debuts from a number of Irish women writers is almost impossible. If it’s cheating to try to include Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, Elaine Feeney’s As You Were, Susannah Dickey’s Tennis Lessons and Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times all in the one breath, then I stand accused.
From that list of provocative and original work, Dolan’s deadpan ability to present a story of love and money, entirely stripped of sentimentality, continued to resonate long after I’d closed the last page.
Summerwater from Glasgow-born Sarah Moss, now living and teaching in Dublin, is another compelling read. A deceptively simple novel about a group of holiday makers by a Scottish loch, where the rain just does not stop pouring, the vacationers’ stories, told by a cross-section of voices, almost feel verbatim. The book’s subtle terror permeates the reader like rain through a coat, as collectively the narratives reveal a terrible human helplessness in the face of a volatile world.
Hilary Fannin’s latest book is the novel The Weight of Love
The best thing about AN Wilson’s hugely entertaining The Mystery of Charles Dickens is that it manages to present Dickens as both a very likable and an extremely unlikable, complicated man. It also encouraged me to start reading Dickens all over again. Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl Small Town is wild and engrossing. We might know the small town but Majella, the big girl, is unexpected and wonderful. Handiwork by Sara Baume is a quiet, precise examination of art and grief and is, quite simply, beautiful. Sarah Crossan’s novel, Here Is the Beehive, also examines grief or, more accurately, carves it up. It looks like a poem on the page but it’s a mad, infuriating, hugely enjoyable story.
My book of the year is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. I read it during the first lockdown. I remember feeling grateful that I was permitted to walk only 2k and I could get home quickly to finish it. From the first page to the final, extraordinary chapter, it is riveting and brilliant.
Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is Love
Kit de Waal
The Correct Order of Biscuits by Adam Sharp is a perfect book of nonsense, lists of random things such as different expressions for “all talk and no action”. My favourite is from China. “The thunder is loud. The rain is light.” Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan is as great as you’d expect from this writer; a story of loss across generations with twists hidden in the beautiful prose.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a blistering story from the abolitionist days of the Deep South by one of the great intellectuals of our time: poetic and unashamedly crusading historical fiction. In Liz Nugent’s Our Little Cruelties, no one knows better how to hurt than your own family. This great story of toxic relationships had me up way too late trying to work out who the bad guy was. As always, Liz had me guessing until the end.
Kit de Waal’s latest work is Supporting Cast
The Dirty South by John Connolly is the latest novel in the Charlie Parker series. This work steps back in this detective’s past. Troubles are still heavy but the touch is light in this hugely enjoyable novel. Another fictional opus was further assembled in 2020. James Lee Burke published his latest in the Dave Robicheaux sequence, A Private Cathedral, where the supernatural confronts this Louisiana-based detective. Burke is peerless, his novels setting the standard for his genre. With the weight of the world so heavy in 2020, readers should plunge into the worlds created by Connolly and Burke.
Anne Applebaum in Twilight of Democracy offers a very personal insight into these worldly weights. A tale of friendships sundered by politics, the personal tone adds to the breadth of insight and the urgency of her warning. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, the story of a British folk-rock band, is wonderful. A big read, so ideal for summer and for Christmas.
Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance; he reviews regularly for The Irish Times
Set in mid-1990s France, Nicolas Mathieu’s And Their Children After Them is a powerful indictment of that society’s attitude towards immigrants and those living beneath the poverty line. Each page is laced with suppressed violence while the young characters pulsate with energy and thwarted ambition.
Having written one of the best debuts of recent years, Garth Greenwell’s second novel, Cleanness, did not disappoint. A hypnotic insight into the sexual life of an American teacher in Sofia, Greenwell revels in long, atmospheric monologues exploring the complex relationship between loneliness and promiscuity. If Henry Miller and Edmund White had a literary son, his name would be Garth Greenwell.
Finally, Graham Norton’s Home Stretch took an intriguing conceit – the effect of a fatal car crash on a small town– and constructed a world around it populated by trauma and deception. Across three novels, Norton has developed into one of our finest literary novelists, a sure-footed chronicler of rural life with a shrewd insight into the hypocrisies that run through its streets.
John Boyne’s most recent novel is A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom
In multiple strands of literary DNA, Apeirogon by Colum McCann pursues the infinite truths and phenomena that encode each of us and our planet, and at the same time divide us. Set in Israel and Palestine, this intriguing novel takes flight from its first page in a compelling arc.
SS Brigadeführer Otto Von Wächter, Hitler’s governor of Galicia, presided over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles, including the family of the author’s grandfather. In 1945 Wächter disappeared. The Ratline by Philippe Sands is an absorbing account of the author’s journey to find him. Burning Heresies by Kevin Myers is a full-throttle, juicy, unexpurgated account of this well-known journalist’s career from the late 1970s. Myers, widely credited with achieving official recognition for Ireland’s first World War dead, was both a controversial columnist and frontline war reporter. A provoking stocking-filler.
Peter Cunningham's Freedom Is a Land I Cannot See is published by Sandstone Press
In That Old Country Music, Kevin Barry returns to what he does best – the short story. He pitches men’s paltry inventories of belongings and fragile longings against landscapes rife with dangerous energies to sketch the precarious presence of the male in stories of fabulous language and sudden laugh-out-loud sentences.
The reissue of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dregs of the Day is a unique, funny, philosophical novel of earthy, exuberant language that also squeezes some of the threadbareness of Beckett through the lunatic tube of Flann O’Brien.
Bina by Anakana Schofield offers more Beckettian bastardisation in brilliantly funny formats that mask deadly serious material. In Threshold by Rob Doyle, a global flaneur writes honestly of male lust and desire and drugs and Blanchot, Bataille and Bolaño in this Rough Guide to the writer’s psyche; a compulsively readable and hugely satisfying work. The Captain and the Glory by David Eggers is proof you can write a satire on Trump – dark, funny and inventive. And I’m saving for Christmas The Art of the Glimpse, edited by Sinéad Gleeson – expanding the canon of the Irish short story. I can’t wait.
Kevin Gildea is a comic, critic and owner of Kevin Gildea's Brilliant Bookshop in Dún Laoghaire
In Actress, Anne Enright focuses on the life of a mother, refracted through the eyes of her daughter, a rainbow of memory, anger and love.
Most writers are good, to varying degrees, at plot, characterisation, description, world-building and – let’s face it – emotional manipulation, but it is rare to score perfect 10s across the board. Christine Dwyer-Hickey does so in The Narrow Land.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, is clever, funny, subtle and sad, and a reminder that there need be nothing trivial about the subject of young people in and out of love.
In non-fiction, Keelin Shanley’s memoir, A Light That Never Goes Out, is a frank self-portrait of the joyful life and courageous death of a remarkable human being. It falls to her husband, in the nature of things, to write the haunting final chapter. A lesson on how to live and to die.
Finally, Gavin Francis’s wonderful Island Dreams stitches memories and maps into a warm but wistful meditation on isolation and belonging.
Ed O’Loughlin’s fourth novel, This Eden, will be published by riverrun in June
Kerri Ní Dochartaigh
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat broke and remade me over and over again. The writing is almost otherworldly; misty and glistening all in one. Creating, existing, loving and keening: this female text is an elegy to being.
How might we live meaningful, creative lives? How to pay attention to the joys of the everyday? How to live and love, honour and grieve: how do we make art in these times? Sara Baume’s Handiwork is a gorgeous book on birds, hands and delicacy.
Darran Anderson’s Inventory maps the events of lives lived on the edges – of place, society, family and self. A tale of Derry, childhood, history, sorrow and healing; reminding us that there’s “simply something miraculously precious about this miserable, beautiful life”.
Derry poet Mícheál McCann’s first pamphlet, safe home, contains some of the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever read. Identity, belonging, place and love, all rendered so openly; sculpted so exquisitely it “makes home glittery”. With the year that’s been in it, that’s pure magic.
Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s debut book, Thin Places, will be published by Canongate next year
In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement ignited urgent conversation and overdue change, Such a Fun Age, the incisive novel by debut author Kiley Reid, neatly presented the problem with performative allyship. Examining themes of class and racism via the story of a black nanny who works for a white family, it also contains what is surely the best toddler dialogue ever written. My favourite book of 2020.
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is simultaneously a page-turner of a family saga and an affecting, insightful meditation on identity. Interrogating the long-lasting devastation wreaked by racism, it follows Stella and Desiree, a pair of identical twins who run away from home in the dead of night.
The Hungover Games, journalist Sophie Heawood’s memoir about becoming a single mother, is brilliantly bawdy and movingly tender. A warm, generous and hilarious read, it’s also a great listen: 2020 was the year I got into audiobooks and this one, read by the author herself, had me guffawing in public.
Lynn Enright is author of Vagina: A Re-Education
In what was a turbulent year for us all, one of the greatest comforts came from the extraordinary literature published. Anne Enright’s Actress, remains vivid in my mind many months after reading. No one is better on mothers and daughters. Actress is absorbing, entertaining and beguiling and stole the show for me in 2020.
In non-fiction, the British-French award-winning author, Michèle Roberts offered a memoir on publishing failure and survival, Negative Capability, that really serves as a manual for a glorious life lived well. The book is a lighthouse to guide us all through latter years with eternal youth and joie de vivre.
Two incredible books that offered poignant commentary on racial politics were Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and Real Life by Brandon Taylor – both works of timely, important literature executed with great skill and style that left deep impressions upon me.
Irish writing was, of course, bountiful and brilliant this year. The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, As You Were by Elaine Feeney, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame by Alan McMonagle, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne and Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan were highlights for me amongst an embarrassment of riches.
Helen Cullen's latest novel is The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually