Another St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and while for some of you that might mean having a Guinness at the Burren and listening to Irish folk music, you might consider passing the time with a good book. I assume you’re all familiar with at least the names of the classic Irish writers such as Swift, Joyce, Shaw and Yeats, so I’m going to focus on contemporary Irish books and authors.
Let’s start with arguably the most important Irish writer of our time: John Banville (left). He won the 2005 Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, and every year critics consider him a possible winner of the Nobel Prize. He’s said his ambition as a writer is to give prose “the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has,” and his novels reflect that: almost every sentence of his deserves to be savored; every paragraph rewards re-reading. Books of his to consider: The Untouchable, Ancient Light, and The Blue Guitar.
Almost everyone is aware of someone in their extended family—a great uncle? a second cousin?—who’s at best extremely eccentric or at worst insane. But surely at one time or another we’ve all wondered, maybe the embarrassing relative is really okay and it’s the rest of us who are the problem? That’s the question Maggie O’Farrell raises in her fourth novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. One day Iris Lockhart gets a call phone call from a mental hospital telling her to come get her great-aunt Esme: the hospital is closing and Iris is listed as Esme’s closest relation. Iris didn’t even know she had a great-aunt Esme. If that beginning in itself isn’t enough to intrigue you, well, there’s no point in me telling you more.
You’ve probably heard of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel The Room (made into a movie with the same title), but if you haven’t read it you're in for an experience. It’s a remarkable imaginative achievement: describing the world from the viewpoint of a five-year-old who’s lived with his mother in an 11 x 11 ft. room for his entire life. The Room begins, “Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?’” But Donoghue (right) doesn’t let us linger with this tone of innocence. We quickly learn the horror that underlies this boy's strange, limited life.
Another Irish writer whose books are well worth your time is Sebastian Barry. His works are often imaginative explorations of Ireland’s complex past. One of the best examples of his historical fiction is A Long Long Way. The protagonist is Willie Dunne, who, like thousands of other Irishmen, enlisted in the British Army at the beginning of World War I and returns to an Ireland in revolt against the Crown. He left his country a patriot, and comes home considered a traitor. Barry tells Dunne’s story in beautiful spare prose with the evocativeness of poetry: “He was born in the dying days. It was the withering end of 1896. He was called William after the long-dead Orange King…” You might also consider Barry’s novel Days without End, the story of Thomas McNulty who leaves Ireland during the Famine for the American West, where he ends up fighting in the Indian wars and the Civil War. Days won the 2017 Walter Scott Award for historical fiction.
Happy reading. And maybe have that Guinness.