The Irish Times books of the year: Writers and critics pick their favourites of 2021

Anne Enright

Amia Srinivasan’s essays in The Right to Sex are so contemporary, they seem almost prescient, not least for the way she places compassion at the centre of feminist thinking. Perhaps this is why her work manages to bridge generations – no mean feat in these shouty times.

It was (it is always?) a great year for the Irish short story: along with Louise Kennedy’s terrific debut, The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, I liked the smart, nuanced and sometimes heart-stopping Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell. Finally, Burntcoat by Sarah Hall is a novel that feels more triggered by the pandemic than caused by it: visceral and intuitive, the prose is also nonstop glorious – a hymn to the physical and fragile nature of existence.

Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress

John Banville

There are not many biographical masterpieces, but in Revelations, the life of the Irish-born painter Francis Bacon, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have produced one. At nearly 900 pages it may seem daunting but it is an utterly thrilling read. Bacon was a monster but by the close of the book we admire him for his honesty, his tenacity, and artistic probity. Julia Parry’s The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters and Elizabeth Bowen, reads like one of Bowen’s own novels. Beautifully written and deftly organised, it is based on a found cache of letters between Bowen and her lover, Humphry House, Parry’s grandfather. John le Carré was a master storyteller to the end, and if his last spy novel, Silverview, is not among his greatest, it is still a marvellous farewell to a form that he perfected.

John Banville’s latest novel is April in Spain

Sarah Moss

Claire Keegan was a new discovery for me and I loved Small Things Like These and immediately started on her backlist. Her writing is invariably elegant and sharp at the same time, and she handles Irish social history with oblique precision. I recommend Norwegian writer Jan Grue’s I Live a Life Like Yours, a memoir of growing up and beginning professional life after a childhood diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy. The writing and translation by BL Crook are strong and spare, very different from Knausgaard’s account of a Norwegian youth but similarly shaped by immersion in philosophy, cultural history and literary criticism.

I enjoyed Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters, a novel about a mathematician visiting her grandmother in rural Malaysia. It opened up a history and landscape I didn’t know as well as I should and the characters stayed with me, but I read fiction mostly for the sentences and they are beautiful. As a recent arrival, I’m always looking for reflections and explorations of Irish society and I found Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World fascinating and nuanced. I need more of my Irish friends to read it so we can talk about it!

Sarah Moss’s latest novel is The Fell

Fintan O’Toole

I was really struck by three books that come, from different angles, at the same phenomenon: the collapse of the old monoliths of Irish identity. Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground is a thoughtful, compassionate and vivid exploration of a sense of belonging that has been unsettled by both slow changes and rapid shocks. It’s as relevant to the future of the Republic as it is to the North. Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World is an equally compelling account of the seismic shifts in the religious culture south of the Border. It moves deftly between intimate and immediate detail and the epic import of the unravelling of allegiances that shaped Irish society so profoundly for so long. And Ann Marie Hourihane’s Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death opens a window into what remains: a rapidly secularising society that still needs to find meaning in the big questions of life and death. It is beautifully written, sharply observed and ultimately very moving.

Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958

Emilie Pine

This has been an absolutely brilliant year for fascinating memoirs, and I am joyfully recommending three that everyone should read! Both beautiful and moving, Small: On Motherhoods by Claire Lynch, is that extraordinary thing – a book you cannot bear to finish because you will be lost without its grace, love and humour. Also telling a story of family and self, Sophie White’s Corpsing made me laugh, cry and gasp out loud in solidarity and admiration. Finally, Unsettled by Rosaleen McDonagh will make you think and feel, and wonder at her poetic prose. If you do nothing else this holiday season, gift yourself one of these books.

Emilie Pine is the author of Notes to Self. Ruth & Pen, her fiction debut, is out next year

Colm Tóibín

Patrick Joyce’s Going to My Father’s House and Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves merge personal stories with large political moments. Joyce’s family came to England from Mayo and Wexford. His account of his life in London, of the legacy of the war and of his experiences in Ireland is written with wisdom and grace. O’Toole’s book is more immediate, more political, but it, too, is animated by grace and wisdom.

The best novel I read this year was Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. I also enjoyed The Letters of John McGahern, edited by Frank Shovlin.

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel is The Magician

Kit de Waal

Old Ireland in Colour by John Breslin and Sarah Anne Buckley – if ever there was a book that shows the universality of human love, desire and spirit this is it. Why colour should make these old photographs reach across time to talk and sing is a mystery but all of a sudden, thanks to some alchemy by the authors – people come alive, just as they were, just as they would be now – mischievous boys and girls with deadly eyes, women caught unawares and the lads, taking a break from a day’s work. I absolutely love it. I’m halfway through We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan and loving it.

Kit de Waal’s latest book is Supporting Cast. Without Warning and Only Sometimes: Scenes from an Unpredictable Childhood will be published next August

Diarmaid Ferriter

It is a pleasure to inhabit the mind of Thomas Mann as imagined by Colm Tóibín in The Magician, a beautifully layered and crafted book, combining personal intimacy and the sweep of history. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is a short book with a deep range and confronts delicate questions and troubling secrets with aplomb. Kevin Power’s White City includes many passages of skillful writing, while its satire of excessive privilege and his comic timing are a tonic. Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World is reflective, textured, insightful and original, worthily seeking “a new phase of emotional comprehension” that we need.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War is published by Profile Books

Sara Collins

All summer I rhapsodised about Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, in which the alienating effects of the protagonist’s undiagnosed mental illness are chronicled with such astute interiority it’s as if The Bell Jar had been relocated to Goldhawk Road. In Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, a Stanford neuroscientist anatomises her own grief after the death of her opioid-addicted brother. I finished it envious of Gyasi’s masterful prose but also furious about the effects of the opioid epidemic, which is the subject of Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s journalistic investigation into the responsibility of the Sackler family for driving it in order to make a fortune selling OxyContin.

Sara Collins is the author of The Confessions of Frannie Langton

John Self

The three novels I named in my mid-year list still stand proud: Musa Okwonga’s In the End, It Was All About Love; Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms (which amazingly has still not won a major prize); and Damon Galgut’s The Promise (which in a rare act of literary justice, has).

I’d now add two more. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is a slender story in short scenes about a woman living in and leaving a city, provokes much thought about language and belonging, and is much better than that makes it sound. And Colm Tóibín’s The Magician, about Thomas Mann, was a delight for those of us who’ve been waiting 17 years for something as good as The Master. This one, an intimate sweep of the 20th century, is even better.

John Self is a critic

Anakana Schofield

Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li delivered me to a new publisher (A Public Space) and a collective reading of Tolstoy’s novel. This book also led me to discover Annie Coggan’s The Book of Errors and to take a drawing class with Annie. I love how Yiyun’s single, thoughtful gesture broadened my reading and life. As a labour history nerd, Jess Walter’s novel The Cold Millions was a rare, rewarding treat, while Eimear McBride’s long essay, Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust, gave us a blast of her mighty brain mining and a vital reminder we are part of a continuum. And to return to Tolstoy together, while we may be presently forced to live in more isolation, we do not need to think in isolation and expanding our thinking and reading should also not become an isolated event.

Anakana Schofield’s latest novel is Bina

Rónán Hession

In a strong year for Irish writing, the standout was the poetic What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle. Chinese writing continues to excite: The Mountain Whisperer by Jia Pingwa translated by Christopher Payne was a memorable novel of peasant folk tales. Elena Knows by Argentine writer Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle, provided a superb twist on the crime novel. Percival Everett is a true original – Damned If I Do stood out among short story collections. A New Name by Norwegian master Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls, concluded his three book Septology, a certain future classic of world literature.

Rónán Hession’s latest novel is Panenka

Sarah Gilmartin

What a firecracker of a novel by Gwendoline Riley this year with My Phantoms, a searing depiction of a troubled mother-daughter relationship and inescapable legacies. I also loved the brutally funny Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, while Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat was a feverish, finely observed novel about love and art in pandemic-riddled times. Irish highlights were Claire Keegan’s impactful Small Things Like These, the timely comedy of John Boyne’s The Echo Chamber, the delicate epiphanies of Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies, and two viscerally memorable debut poetry collections, Victoria Kennefick’s Eat Or We Both Starve and Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe’s Auguries of a Minor God.

Sarah Gilmartin’s debut novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published by Pushkin Press

Paschal Donohoe

Billy Summers by Stephen King features an assassin who only kills “bad men” and who commits to one final killing. It is a brilliantly enjoyable novel with a thrilling conclusion. I also loved Panenka by Rónán Hession. Adventures of a political nature are chronicled by In the Thick of It by Alan Duncan. These diaries of a former Tory MP and minister narrate the twists and turns of Brexit and the ups and downs of ministerial life. Confronting Leviathan by David Runciman is a collection of essays on the power of the state. The elegance and warmth of this collection will earn it classic status.

Paschal Donohoe is Minister for Finance

John Kelly

William Blake vs The World by John Higgs is a wonderful adventure in politics, art and spiritualty. Comparative religion, neurobiology and even quantum physics all deployed to better understand a misunderstood genius.

Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis – about a piece of used chewing gum as kind of sacred totem – is a book on connections, friendships and the delights of the artistic process itself. 

Paul McCartney The Lyrics edited by Paul Muldoon is a thing of great beauty and insight. It references FR Leavis, as does another welcome arrival – the new Muldoon collection entitled Howdie-Skelp.

I read hardly any fiction these days but I was captured by Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson and by Claire Keegan’s brilliant novella Small Things Like These. She’s an astonishing writer. There’s nobody like her.

John Kelly’s first collection of poetry, Notions, is published by Dedalus Press. A second collection, Space, will be published in 2022

Rebecca O’Connor

Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You calibrates existential loneliness and dread with moments of real warmth and intimacy, while Kazuo Ishiguro’s quietly explosive Klara and the Sun gives us a whole new perspective on what our limitations are as human beings.

Winter Recipes from the Collective, Louise Glück’s new collection of poetry, is unflinchingly stark but feels necessary and defiant: “Everything is change, he said, and everything is connected./ Also everything returns, but what returns is not what went away”. And Claire Keegan’s restrained fablelike Small Things Like These glows with the moral courage of its hero in the face of the Catholic Church’s brutality and the community’s mindless connivance.

Rebecca O’Connor is the author of He Is Mine and I Have No Other and co-director of the Moth

Mark O’Connell

Sara Gran’s novella Come Closer was originally published in 2003, but reissued by Faber this summer. It’s a deeply creepy story about a successful architect who becomes possessed by a pointy-toothed demon who causes her to do increasingly perverse and insane things. The book is somehow much less schlocky than it sounds; I was reminded of more recent fiction by the Argentine writers Samanta Schweblin and Marianna Enriquez.

Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You was bold, moving and quietly profound. Hype or no hype, I thought it was extraordinary. I also loved Kevin Power’s stylish and immensely entertaining White City – a rare example of a comic novel that is actually funny. Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful and enigmatic Klara and the Sun was also a highlight. And I was really impressed by The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion, by the forensic psychologist Gwen Adshead – a fascinating and deeply humane account of her work with people who have committed violent crimes. The best new non-fiction book I read this year was Anna Della Subin’s brilliant Accidental Gods, which examines colonialism, racism, religion, and the roots of our contemporary world through the lens of men worshipped as divinities in their own time. A stylish, playfully rigorous intellectual performance worthy of Marina Warner or Roberto Calasso.

Mark O’Connell’s latest book is Notes from an Apocalypse

Niamh Donnelly

Why does it feel slightly gauche to say, in earnest, how much I loved Sally Rooney’s megahit, Beautiful World, Where Are You? But there you go. I found it moving and intelligent, lyrical and intense. To pull off such a thing under the stark gaze of the expectant masses is really something. Kevin Power has been on top form of late with his essays and his sophomore novel, White City, about a young man’s unravelling as the Celtic Tiger crumbles, was clever and energetic and had me rapt. Roisín Kiberd’s debut essay collection, The Disconnect, an excavation of internet life, was a treat. And I couldn’t list my books of the year without mentioning Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! which reprises the voice of Lucy Barton in all its subtle, illuminating, heartbreaking brilliance.

Niamh Donnelly is a critic

Rick O’Shea

I’ve chosen three; it could have been 30. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed is part crime story set in 1980s Paris, mostly gorgeously written dissection of colonialism, racism, power, duality, loyalty and love. Still Life by Sarah Winman was the one I used to escape Ireland when none of us could – from the second World War to the late 1970s and all about love, beauty, art, surviving loss, England and Italy, and creating a family from those close to you.

Then, just pipping so many others at the post, Claire Keegan’s exquisite Small Things Like These. Set in New Ross leading up to Christmas 1985 it’s a story of working class life, drudgery, love, fear, and hope in the shadow of the local mother and baby home.

Rick O’Shea is a broadcaster and literary curator

Caoilinn Hughes

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms is a tart slice of a life between an adult daughter and her mother: shrewdly observed, utterly convincing, painful, wickedly funny. The mother-daughter dynamic being given a novel’s exploration is gratifying for being so rare. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk came to mind. Louise Kennedy’s stories in The End of the World is a Cul de Sac are devastating, hauntingly recognisable, droll, wise, brutal, lucent and gloriously refreshing. She’s brought an army of complex, contradictory, haywire women into Irish literature. Her novel forthcoming in spring, Trespasses, is bound to wreck me, and I can’t wait. Other favorites included Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This; Natasha Brown’s Assembly and Helen Gordon’s Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is sublime.

Caoilinn Hughes’s latest novel is The Wild Laughter

Breandán Mac Suibhne

Small World: Ireland, 1798-2018 assembles essays on Irish political and literary culture by the late Seamus Deane.

Together, they constitute a masterclass in critical writing. Robert Lundy, whose effigy is annually incinerated in Deane’s hometown, provides Susan McKay, who is also of Derry, with a moniker for those cultural Protestants who, in the North, are walking away from unionism. In her powerful Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, one discerns people considering their options with increasing confidence and one sees too the prospect of a better Ireland. The city that Lundy would have betrayed also features in The First Irish Cities, David Dickson’s scintillating history of the country’s urban network. A real tour-de-force, it provides numerous reminders that, as socio-economic and political plates shift, cultures and identities change. Meanwhile, for something totally different, there is Mark Kurlansky’s The Unreasonable Virtue of Flyfishing, not a how-to-fish book but a warm reflection on why people go fishing. And, with it, come thoughts of spring.

Breandán Mac Suibhne directs Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge at NUI Galway; he is the author of The End of Outrage

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

It has been a rich year for fiction, and especially for debut novels from new writers. Pauline Clooney’s Charlotte and Arthur, about Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon journey in Ireland, is thoroughly enjoyable. Jamie O’Connell’s Diving for Pearls, set mainly in Dubai, is wonderful, as is Sarah Gilmartin’s Dinner Party: A Tragedy. I loved Ann Ingle’s memoir, Openhearted. Evelyn Conlon’s short story collection, Moving About the Place, confirms her as one of our most unique voices. Anne Griffin’s Listening Still is well worth reading. Finally, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is simply stunning. She is a genius.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest work is Little Red and Other Stories

Kevin Gildea

The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner – excellent essays, whether writing heartbreakingly about a Palestinian refugee camp or super smartly about Jeff Koons or her own eventful life. Brilliant. A Very Strange Man by Alannah Hopkin is the compulsively interesting story of her life with the great Irish writer Aidan Higgins full of literary insights and stories of Beckett, Banville etc in the earlier days of the Irish literature business. The Fatal Move by Conall Cearnach – lost fantastical tales from 1924 including some top-class versions of the genre. I’m in the middle of The Pages by Hugo Hamilton, a wonderful, clever book narrated by a book. Stories about and via stories wrapped in its own great story.

Kevin Gildea runs Kevin Gildeas Brilliant Bookshop in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin