My Favourite Books of 2021: Part Two – Irish Writers

I’m continuing my run down of my favourite books of the year, with a look at the best books I read this year by Irish authors.

The Emperor of Ice-cream by Brian Moore

Of all the Brian Moore novels I read this year, this was not the one that I anticipated loving the most. His fifth novel and arguably his most autobiographical, The Emperor of Ice-cream is set in 1939 and focuses on Gavin Burke, a  17 year old who has failed his school Leaving Cert and has joined the First Aid Party (FAP) of the Air Raid Precautions Unit (a job also held by Moore). 

The novel is an unlikely masterpiece, with its comic set-pieces and self-absorbed hero, but again it showcases Moore’s skill in depicting a very specific place and time. He weaves themes of religion and belief, stagnation and growth into a particularly readable narrative that is both heart-breaking and hopeful.

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty

A new Bernard MacLaverty book doesn’t come along very often, but this collection of short stories was well worth the wait. This is a collection of 12 stories, each one exploring important moments in quiet lives. Some of the themes include looking after an ailing parent, small acts of kindness that make a large impression on someone’s life and the importance of art and music. The stories all feature a striking attention to detail and the use of vernacular in language.

There are several nods to the current pandemic in the collection. The central and longest story The End of Days: Vienna 1918 is a fictionalised account of the last days of the painter Egon Schiele who died in the Spanish flu pandemic and the final story Blackthorns: Derry, 1942 features the use of a new vaccine, created by Pfizer.

Although three of the stories are set in a particular time and place, there is a timelessness to the collection that makes the themes explored feel universal.

White City by Kevin Power

White City is the second novel from Dublin writer Kevin Power and it is an absolute blast of a book. Set in the upper echelons of Dublin society, it follows Ben – whose banker father is about to stand trial for fraud – as he tries to find a place for himself in the shadow of his infamous father. As Ben falls deeper into a spiral of drug use, he gets involved in a dodgy property deal in Serbia, which seems too good to be true.

White City is a real page-turner, reminiscent of early Amis, very sharp and funny, but with heart. Power is an astute writer of character and the book is also a sly look at the bust and boom of capitalism, not just in Dublin but across the Western world. Highly recommended.

The Barracks by John McGahern

The Barracks is a heart-breaking story of a middle-aged woman called Elizabeth Regan who discovers early in the narrative that she has cancer. In spite of her illness, she still has to look after her husband, a discontented Garda sergeant and the three children from his first marriage. The Barracks is a beautiful book, tracing the power and pain that comes from self-awareness, the beauty of the everyday and the indomitable nature of the human heart to love and to fight on, against all odds.

We all know that we are going to die, the question that McGahern asks here, is when are we going to start living? Masterpiece is a strong word, but, without doubt, The Barracks is just that.

The End of the World is a Cul-de-sac by Louise Kennedy

Readers of Irish short story collections have been spoiled in recent years with fantastic collections from writers such as Lucy Caldwell. Wendy Erskine and Danielle McLaughlin.

Louise Kennedy’s debut collection of fifteen stories is just as impressive, exploring themes of co-dependence, trust, memory and the pull of the past. Kennedy has a wonderful eye for small detail and a striking way of capturing the natural world, which makes these stories powerful and unforgettable.

Special Mention: The Raptures by Jan Carson

Jan Carson’s new novel The Raptures isn’t published until early 2022, but I was lucky to receive a review copy. This hugely engaging new novel tells the story of Hannah Adger, an awkward and quiet 11-year-old, whose life – and the lives of all everyone in her small town of Ballylack – is thrown into chaos when her classmates start to get ill and die. Carson uses her trademark wit, use of vernacular and magic realist style to great effect in this dramatic, funny and ultimately moving novel which explores the dangers of insular small-mindedness and religious fundamentalism and guilt and trauma that can result from growing up in such an environment. Definitely one to look out for in 2022. Plus it has the best cover ever!

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of my favourite books of the year, which will focus on newly published books from 2021 and will coincide with my blog’s 8th birthday!

Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Great to see Louise Kennedy on your list and I agree with you about Irish women short story writers. Have you read Sheila Armstrong’s How to Gut a Fish, due next year? Highly recommend it, and Kennedy has a first novel out, too. I read The Raptures this week and agree with you. I wasn’t at all sure about that premise but I was proved wrong!

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  2. Oh dear — I haven’t read any of these and I want to read them all! I will say that I’ve had a copy of The Barracks for a couple of years now; your review confirms what I’ve read from others, i.e., that it’s a fabulous book. I WILL definitely read it.
    The Emperor of Ice Cream was a Brian Moore I didn’t get to (the poem providing the title has always intrigued me). Speaking of which, I really appreciate your Year of the Moore! Although I didn’t participate as much as I wanted to, it provided the necessary spark for me to finally read Moore’s Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

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  3. A great selection, Cathy. John McGahern is a writer I’d like to read more of in the future. Among Women is the only one I’m familiar with so far (via an audio version on Radio 4), but his style really appeals. I’ll definitely make a note of The Barracks for future reference.

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  4. im so excited for the new Jan Carson! luckily i have an ARC so im hoping to get to it as soon as i can 👀 also thank you for the review of White Power! it’s been on my radar ever since i heard about it but i havent heard anyone else talking about it – will definitely have to check it out!! 😊

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  5. It sounds like I’m going to have to read The Emperor of Ice-Cream. It must have been a hard decision to choose one of his books! I still have the one I chose to read last January, by the way, sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I still plan to read it!! I can’t believe the whole year has already gone by!!
    Jan Carson’s books sound good – I wonder why our library doesn’t have ANY?!

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