I thought I would kick Ireland Month off with a pretty impossible task – that of choosing my Top Ten Books by Irish Authors. This list has now gone through several revisions as I think of some other book I want to include, but as of now it will have to do! Included are books I read over 25 years ago alongside books I’ve only just read in the last few months.
In compiling the list I noticed that there are a lot of books that I read in the early 1990s that I love. This is probably the period in my life when I was reading the most, and definitely a time when I was reading a lot of Irish fiction and checking out authors I had never read before. Looking at all the books on my list, I wondered if there was anything particularly ‘Irish’ about them and the most I can say is that they all deal with a form of loneliness, dislocation and otherness – a sense of exile, even from those closest to you.
1. Light A Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy
This was one of those, what I would call, ‘transition’ books, a book I read when I was moving from children’s books, through teen books to adult books. Published in 1992, all my friends in school read this story about two girls, one English and one Irish, thrown together in the aftermath of the Second World War and their friendship over the next 20 years. It’s a timeless, warm hearted book, and I still have my mother’s hardback copy from 33 years ago!
2. Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty
I sometimes wonder if a book like Lamb could be written today. The subject matter of a priest who befriends a boy he teaches would now be read under the shadow of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, but in 1981 that wasn’t the case. In this graceful and moving novel, Brother Sebastian, nee Michael Lamb, runs away from the bleak boarding school where he works, taking with him twelve-year-old Owen Kane. The media and the police call it a kidnapping but for Lamb, it is an innocent attempt to find happiness for himself and the abused boy, a rescue from a hopeless place. Lamb is a beautifully written book, which ultimately asks us ‘What would you do for love?’ and it has the most heartbreaking ending I think I have ever read. It has also been made into an equally powerful film starring Liam Neeson.
3. Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996, Reading in the Dark is a kind of metaphysical detective story, part memoir, part thriller as a young boy looks back on his childhood growing up in Derry in the 40s and 50s as he tries to solve the mystery of a family secret, which unfolds through lies, betrayals and long hidden wounds. This is a poetic and vivid evocation of childhood and a breathtakingly beautiful book that I have returned to again and again.
4. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
“When I was a young lad, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent”. So begins The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel which tells the story of Francie Brady and his descent into madness and violence following the breakdown of his family life. Told in a stream of consciousness that places the reader right inside Francie’s shattered brain, this is a darkly comic and often horrifying picture of mental illness, family breakdown and small town life. It’s not a book you will be able to shake. And I mean that in the best way.
5. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
What can I say about Skippy Dies? If you’ve read it you’ll understand. If you haven’t – what are you waiting for? It is funny. So incredibly funny and moving and heartbreaking. The clue is in the title. Skippy , Daniel Juster, does indeed die at the beginning of the book, during a donut eating race with his best friend Ruprecht. What follows is a wondrous ride through boarding school, adolescence, string theory and grief. It is a frothy page-turning wonder with a heart of very recognisable darkness.
6. A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
I only read A Girl is A Half Formed Thing last month, but the impression it has made on me has been significant. My review will be on the blog this month, but this pungent, pugnacious and heartbreaking book about a young girl’s coming of age affected me like a blow to the stomach. The themes are typical of Irish literature – a coming of age tale with an absent father, a cruel mother and an inappropriate sexual relationship and the narrative style, although lauded has been done before (it reminded me of The Butcher Boy in particular) but the marriage of the two makes for something entirely unique.
7. Emily’s Shoes by Dermot Bolger
When I was 17, I read Emily’s Shoes three times in one year. It started to become a running joke with my parents when they noticed I was reading it again and again. I haven’t read it in about 20 years so I wonder if it would resonate so much now, but I adored this quiet, unassuming story of Michael McMahon, whose obsession with collecting and wearing women’s shoes stems from the loss of his parents at a critical moment in his teenage life. Bolger perfectly captures the joy and the shame that comes from Michael’s predilection and his examination of his past leads to the possibility of a healing and understanding. This is not an erotic, or titillating book, the subject matter is not there as a gimmick, but is used as a symbol of a young boy’s pain and loss.
8. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
I could have picked any one of Brian Moore’s novels for this list – Cold Heaven, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, Lies of Silence – all completely different, but all particularly Irish in their own way. There’s a reason he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize three times! This is not a happy book. Judith Hearne, is a middle-aged Irish spinster and an alcoholic. This might be a book about an alcoholic, but it’s not about drinking, it is about what drives someone to alcoholism, the shame, the fear the loneliness and the longing. This is a short book, but it is unflinching in it’s portrait of a life half lived, but never devoid of hope.
9. Riply Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
Riply Bogle was published in 1989 when I was an 18 year old English student in Belfast. Robert McLiam Wilson was 26 at the time and something of a literary rock star in Belfast amongst us undergraduates – young, handsome and feted as the next great literary talent. The novel is set in London and follows our titular hero over four days as he wanders the streets of the city, homeless and musing on his life, directly addressing the reader. There are flashbacks to growing up in West Belfast during The Troubles, his move to Cambridge University and his subsequent decline into homelessness, all of which had an autobiographical edge. Hailed as a new Amis, McLiam Wilson produced a debut that is by turns angry, amusing and unforgettable.
Our author poster boy in the 1990s – Robert McLiam Wilson
10. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor
William Trevor was always going to be on my list, the only question was which book. Love & Summer, Lucy Gault, the short stories, are all stunningly lyrical and quietly moving, but it is this story of a young pregnant girl who journeys to England to search for her erstwhile lover, that iI love most. It has everything I love about Trevor’s writing, but reads like a pyscholigcal thriller as Felicia comes to the attention of the unnerving Mr HIlditch, whose initial care and concern masks an entirely different intention. Trevor is a masterful storyteller and with Felicia’s Journey he is at the peak of his talent.
Now, I know that then moment I hit publish on this post, will think of a host of other books that I’ll wish I had included, but for the moment, this is my Top Ten.
I have also realised that 4 of my Top Ten have been made into films – Lamb, The Butcher Boy, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Felicia’s Journey – all excellent movies and well worth checking out.
Do you have a favourite Irish book, or have thoughts on any of these novels? Have you seen the movie versions? Do any of these sound like your kind of book? Let me know what you think!