The Great Irish Novel departs the oul' sod

Covent Garden, obscured in Victorian smog. The dark forests of Borno State, Nigeria. Rain-soaked and candle-lit Co Clare. Sunshiney Cape Cod. Quiet pastureland in Waterford. The busy port town of Algeciras in southern Spain.

These are the settings in the books shortlisted for the Eason Novel of the Year Award, the winner to be announced at the An Post Irish Book Awards on Wednesday. Excepting four previous winners, it’s almost written in stone that, like Ulysses, the Great Irish Novel be set in the oul’ sod. But only two on this year’s shortlist are set in Ireland. Our best writers can most certainly “see the world in a grain of sand” but not necessarily just from Dollymount. Or Ballybunion.

Mary Costello’s The River Capture is set in Waterford, not Dublin, though Joyce’s Ulysses haunts it from the get-go. Luke O’Brien, nearing the end of a teaching career break, has not written the book he’d planned to write on Joyce. Uneasy with his inertia and very lonely, his chance for possible happiness is crushed by familial ties. An Irish cliché, you’d think, yet it’s anything but. The Guardian swooned: “To take on the ne plus ultra of literary modernism and bend it to one’s own ends is an audacious act of literary ventriloquism…” Costello’s ‘audaciousness’ is displayed in vivid colour in this melancholy, tender homage.

The other novel that’s set in Ireland is Niall Williams’s This is Happiness. Now an old man, Noel Crowe is reminiscing about a teenage summer spent in the village of Faha, with the arrival of first love and also of rural electrification. Sharing Noel’s lodgings is freshly blown-in Christy, come to help with the electrics and to right a wrong of years before. The praise has been deafening, with Hilary A White in this newspaper writing: “Williams’s sunny, grainy, gently hilarious saga is an ‘elsewhere’, a place of unashamed romance for a nostalgic tradition of storytelling, where exaggeration and eye twinkles might in fact just bring you closer to the truth. Sublime. It’s a disarmingly beautiful novel.”

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Edna O’Brien’s Girl is located in Nigeria, based on true survival stories after Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped over 200 girls from a school in Borno State. The girls were enslaved, raped, beaten, some married off and others brutally killed. Young Maryam escapes but finds she can’t return to her previous life. A previous Novel of the Year winner, Anne Enright, in a review for The Irish Times had this to say of O’Brien and her late-career departure: “There is a stage in life, we hope, when you can do whatever you like… In this harrowing, swift tale, she has found the right task for her talent, at just the right time.”

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay is a fictionalised account of Bram Stoker’s mission to resurrect the tattered Lyceum theatre in London, in the employ of actor/impresario Henry Irving and in the occasional company of actress Ellen Terry. It’s said that Stoker’s theatre experiences are at least partly responsible for his theatrical and world-famous Count, although Stoker wouldn’t live to see Dracula become famous.

Novelist James Lawless wrote in his review: “This is a mesmerising read, meticulously researched with beautiful prose true to Victorian idiom and patois… But the ultimate sadness of this story lies in the realisation many flowers are born to blush unseen.” Stoker’s widow in fact had to sue for copyright. But it’s Stoker’s living years in a dark, foggy Victorian London that O’Connor captures so skilfully.

Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier is about misspent lives, regret and longing. Two worn-out drug dealers, Charlie and Maurice, sit and wait in Algeciras, waiting for Charlie’s missing daughter Dilly to turn up from Tangier, where she’s been known to spend time. But, just like Charlie’s ex-wife, Dilly doesn’t want to be found. Written with Barry’s trademark poetry, a review in The Guardian nailed it: “What distinguishes this book beyond its humour, terror and beauty of description is its moral perception… it is a plunging spiritual immersion into the parlous souls of wrongful men”.

Finally, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land, about Edward and Jo Hopper and their lives in Cape Cod, is ingeniously narrated in part by a young German post-war refugee, sent there one summer as a playmate for another child. The Irish Examiner said: “Reading The Narrow Land… is like experiencing the work of F Scott Fitzgerald. There’s that same atmospheric sense of long hot summers, with people extracting as much pleasure as they can. That it’s written by an Irish writer… seems quite extraordinary.” And it is indeed an extraordinary, highly evocative novel.

I wouldn’t dare to predict which of these novels, all outstanding and all so very different, will win the prize. Some things are better left to the Fates. Or at least to others.

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