Since its inception in 1996, the International Dublin Literary Award has championed novels from around the world, often ignoring the work of mainstream writers for those whose books maybe less familiar to English-speaking readers.
It has been less good, however, at recognising female writers. While the all-male shortlists of ’07 and ’09 were shameful, it seems ridiculous that the prize has been won only twice by women, Herta Müller in 1998 and Nicola Barker in 2000. The judges of 2018 have, intentionally or not, redressed this balance by selecting a shortlist of six women and four men. While one should always choose the best books rather than trying to satisfy a quota – I was a judge myself in 2011 so understand how complex the task can be – one would hope that future panels will also recognise the importance of equal representation.
It’s a strong list with a broad appeal, a multi-national line-up featuring books from nine countries: Korea, Germany, the United States, South Africa, France, Norway, Spain, Italy and, with two nominees, Ireland.
Mike McCormack and Eimear McBride are the hometown favourites with Solar Bones and The Lesser Bohemians respectively. McCormack is an obvious choice, having won many deserved accolades since Tramp Press published the book with thrilling enthusiasm in 2016. A writer who had fallen out of favour with British publishers, his renaissance has delighted anyone who believes in the ability of good writing to find a readership.
McBride is a more curious selection. Her second novel is written in a similar style to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, depending on staccato sentences, unfinished thoughts and fragmented commentary to build its effect. While less elusive than her debut, an appreciation of the book depends on whether the reader can locate meaning in the chaos or finds the conceit a little too self-important and affected. However, a little eccentricity and originality of purpose does the literary world no harm and McBride has certainly built a passionate following that could be reflected in a win.
Two other English-language novels are up for the prize. Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton is a deeply moving story that reunites a mother and daughter in a hospital room, where each must confront the mistakes they've made in the past. Strout, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Olive Kitteridge, has already published a companion novel of equal merit, Anything is Possible, that sees Lucy returning to her hometown in Illinois and, should she fail to win this year, she could very well triumph in 2019.
On the surface, Yewande Omotoso's The Woman Next Door seems a little obvious – two elderly South African women, one white, one black, have been at each other's throats for decades but when circumstances force them together, they realise how much they have in common – but Omotoso writes with wit and charm, allowing the allegory to develop quite naturally in the writing. It doesn't hurt that Marion and Hortensia are vivid, authentic characters, created without cliché or stereotype, but it's much lighter in tone than previous winners and seems unlikely to emerge as the champion.
As ever with this award, it is translations that dominate and the Korean writer, Han Kang, continues her ascent to literary superstardom with Human Acts: A Novel, which carries the voices of victims of the uprisings in that country at the start of the 1980s.
Kang's The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize and her recent The White Book defied genre entirely, proving itself one of the most intriguing and memorable works of 2017. She has a unique method of looking at the world and while her books are experimental in nature, they eschew gimmickry and faux-cleverness. Human Acts introduces the reader to an unfamiliar culture and society and the brutality of the story is balanced with an empathy for her characters as well as a willingness to both define and defend her homeland.
Italy is represented by Antonio Moresco's Distant Light, a hypnotic study of isolation where a man living in an abandoned mountain village is distracted by a light that shines in the distance at the same time every night. Investigating its source, he comes upon a young boy and the relationship that forms between the two is absorbing. Moresco, a prolific writer in his 70s, brings a quiet dignity to his characters and this short book focuses on the nature of existence itself as his unnamed narrator wanders through empty streets, absorbed by a one-sided conversation with the inanimate objects that surround him.
The French writer, Marie NDiaye, has also proved highly prolific although, unlike Moresco, whose first work was published in his mid-40s, NDiaye has been publishing since her late teens, winning both the Prix Femina and the Prix Goncourt for earlier books.
Interestingly, her second novel, Comédie Classique, was composed of a single sentence, a technique replicated by her fellow nominee McCormack in Solar Bones. Ladivine: A Novel, however, explores issues of colour across several generations, featuring a central character who is both ashamed of and tries to distance herself from her heritage. While it is written with passion and integrity, it is hard not to feel that this is well-trodden ground.
Both Distant Light and Ladivine appear to have birthed a literary offspring in Roy Jacobsen's novel The Unseen. As with the former, themes of seclusion and solitude are employed when a woodsman and his family find themselves alone on their island, cut off from the rest of Norway, while the latter is recalled in how several generations of one family can be affected by decisions made in the past.
Writing in these pages, Eileen Battersby described it as “easily among the best books I have ever read”, and the power of the novel lies in both the isolationist story and Jacobsen’s skill with language. His evocations of the natural landscape and the storms that surround the family are incomparable. This is Jacobsen’s second time to be shortlisted for the award, an honour also afforded to NDiaye.
The final two novels on the list are, for me, the weakest ones. Yuri Herrera's The Transmigration of Bodies is set in Mexico and has a peculiar fascination with dead bodies, the victims of an ongoing feud between two crime families.
Alina Bronsky's Baba Dunja's Last Love, an atypical choice, is a more light-hearted affair, featuring a strong-willed and occasionally hilarious elderly woman who persuades her former neighbours to return with her to their old Ukrainian village, despite the danger from radioactive levels. The former is far more rooted in crime than literature and the latter, while entertaining, is perhaps too slight to have earned its place.
Interestingly, for the third year running, there are no British writers, despite the presence of excellent novels by Rose Tremain, Naomi Alderman, Graham Swift and Rachel Cusk on the longlist. It's a pity too that no place was found for Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, both of whom would have been deserving winners.
There’s not much to be gained by trying to second-guess literary judges as the final result is usually a mixture of personal taste, compromise and passion.
McCormack's career has been revitalised and the award would be the final icing on the cake for Solar Bones, while Jacobsen would be equally deserving for a true work of literature that impresses on every page. My vote, however, would go to Han's Human Acts. There's a political bravery to Han's writing, a willingness to surprise and a skill with form and narrative that marks her out as one of the most innovative writers at work today. Adding the International Dublin Literary Award to her growing catalogue of prizes would ensure that even more readers discover her extraordinary books.
The shortlisted titles are:
- Baba Dunja's Last Love by Alina Bronsky (Ukrainian/German) Translated from the German by Tim Mohr. Published by Europa Editions.
- The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera (Mexican) Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Published by And Other Stories.
- The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norwegian) Translated from Norwegian by
- Don Bartlett & Don Shaw. Published by MacLehose Press.
- Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korean) Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Published by Portobello Books and Random House, USA.
- The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Irish) Published by Faber & Faber.
- Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Irish) Published by Tramp Press.
- Distant Light by Antonio Moresco (Italian) Translated from Italian by
- Richard Dixon. Published by Archipelago Books.
- Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye (French) Translated from French by Jordan Stump. Published by MacLehose Press.
- The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (South African/Nigerian/Barbadian) Published by Chatto & Windus.
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (American) Published by Penguin, UK
The winner of this year's International Dublin Literary Award will be announced on June 13th
John Boyne's latest novel is The Heart's Invisible Furies.