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The best debut fiction of 2020

The standout first novels and collections from home and abroad this year

In the strangest of years, it feels appropriate to start with the most unusual prose debut of 2020, Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. A mesmeric mix of essay and autofiction, the Cork author’s book is an intricate, beautifully crafted text linking two Irish women over centuries.

The book charts Ní Ghríofa’s work on a new translation of the 18th-century poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (the Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire) by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, with themes of desire, domesticity and death explored over centuries. Shortlisted for two categories at this year’s Irish Book Awards, it deservedly won Non-Fiction Book of the Year and then this week was named overall Book of the Year.

It was a strong year for Irish debuts on the whole. All of the books from emerging Irish authors reviewed in New Fiction this year had something to commend them.

Garnering much press attention pre-publication, Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times lived up to the hype. This cerebral and sharply written book follows three 20-somethings in Hong Kong in an engaging and modern take on a love triangle. With a similarly acerbic tone and subject matter, Niamh Campbell's This Happy was another standout debut. The Dublin author also won the 2020 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for Love Many, first published in the Dublin Review.

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Both Campbell and Dolan were shortlisted for the Newcomer Award at the Irish Book Awards, along with the winner Dara McAnulty's acclaimed Diary of a Young Naturalist, Rachel Donohue's The Temple House Vanishing, Patrick Freyne's essay collection OK, Let's Do Your Stupid Idea and Michelle Gallen's debut novel, Big Girl, Small Town.

Released in February, Gallen’s book stands out for its skilful use of voice. Protagonist Majella O’Neill is a reclusive, overweight misanthrope who lives with her mother in a small town on the Border. Her story proved a captivating anti-picaresque of a young woman in stasis.

Gallen's contemporary, the poet Susannah Dickey, also deserves a mention for her emotionally engaging debut novel, Tennis Lessons. Narrated in a brutally poignant second person, the book is an unusual coming-of-age tale about fraught family relations.

With its mid-20th century, west of Ireland location, Molly Aitken's debut The Island Child went further into the past to look at similar themes: the ties of culture and family, the longing to escape, the journey home again. As with Dickey and Gallen, the chief success of this enjoyable read was the creation of a memorable voice.

Multiple nominations

Another noteworthy name at this year's Irish Book Awards was Caoilinn Hughes, who received multiple nominations and won the short-story award and whose mercurial second novel, The Wild Laughter, confirms her as one of the most exciting writers in contemporary Irish fiction.

Meanwhile, the Galway author Elaine Feeney's As You Were is the break-out debut of the year, a vibrant portrayal of a dying woman that was full of humour and history, and which bypassed the newcomer category at the IBAs to be shortlisted for Novel of the Year.

Omitted from the glittery shortlistings but deserving of consideration were debuts from John O'Donnell, Alice Lyons and Marianne Lee. The latter's A Quiet Tide is a tender fictionalisation of the life of Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins. Lyons's Oona is an impressive, intricate debut that employs the French literary style oulipo to tell a story of loss and redemption through art. John O'Donnell's short fiction debut, Almost the Same Blue, sees the barrister and poet combine his backgrounds for a finely detailed, engaging collection that would make a good stocking filler.

More smart choices for Christmas shoppers are Sarah Crossan's debut for adults, Here Is the Beehive, a verse novel that tells the suspenseful story of the end of an affair; and Hilary Fannin's The Weight of Love, a poignant tale of loves lost and won set across two distinct and finely rendered time periods.

Internationally, debuts were front and centre this year, with eight of the 13-strong Booker longlist written by first-time authors. The shortlist of six was made up of four debut authors – Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, Brandon Taylor and Douglas Stuart – with Stuart announced as the winner in a virtual ceremony last month.

Cook's The New Wilderness is a remarkable work of quasi-speculative fiction that vividly renders the effects of climate change in a not-too-distant future. Leave the World Behind, the third novel by the American author Rumaan Alam, pulls off a similar feat in a genuinely terrifying story set over a long weekend in Long Island as an unknown event plunges the world into crisis.

Other notable international debuts in 2020 were Callan Wink’s August, Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier, Olive by Emma Gannon, Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, John Vercher’s Three Fifths, and the brilliantly titled memoir by Nina Renata Aron, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls. For the turbulent year that was in it, it seems the perfect way to sign off.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts