Book lists

10 years of favourite reads from the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlists

At the end of this month, the winner of the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year will be named at Listowel Writers’ Week.

This annual award for Irish writers of fiction was established in 1995 — and the list of alumni reads like a roll call of Ireland’s best contemporary writers, including everyone from Deidre Madden to John Banville. (You can see the list of winners on this Wikipedia page.)

I’ve been following the prize closely since 2017, but I was first made aware of it in 2012 when I read the winner, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s exceedingly good The Cold Eye of Heaven. In fact, I read three other books from that year’s shortlist — Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, Carlo Gebler’s The Dead Eight and Belinda McKeon’s Solace — and loved them all.

Over the years, the shortlists have provided me with rich pickings and acted as a faithful guide to the best crop of Irish novels released in a particular year. I thought it might be useful to put together a list of my favourites from the past decade.

If you’re not sure where to start with Irish literature or just want to read something entertaining and well-written, this list of 18 novels should provide inspiration. It has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to read my review in full.

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville (shortlisted in 2016)

A pompous, self-obsessed Irish artist looks back — in forensic detail — on the love affair he carried out with his best friend’s wife. Richly immersive.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry (shortlisted in 2016)

A Liverpudlian named John goes on a riotous adventure to the uninhabited Irish island he bought years ago but has never visited. A riotous romp full of unexpected surprises.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (shortlisted 2020)

Two Irish gangsters reminisce about their topsy-turvy lives as drug dealers while they wait for someone to get off the night boat at the Spanish port of Algeciras. Blackly comic.

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (shortlisted 2019)

A would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists resorts to criminality in the pursuit of fame and glory. Riotously good fun.

My Name is Leon

‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal (winner 2017)

A mixed-race nine-year-old boy is separated from his younger brother when he is taken into foster care. Bittersweet and heartbreaking.

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding (shortlisted 2022)

A former stage actress with a young son begins to hear paranoid voices in her head that she can only alleviate with alcohol. Tense and compelling with a truly distinctive voice.

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan (winner 2022)

Hard-working coal merchant Bill Furlong uncovers a disturbing secret at the local convent run by the Good Shepherd nuns. A short, powerful read.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy (shortlisted 2013)

Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, gives evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. Darkly comic morality tale.

‘Time Present and Time Past’ by Deirdre Madden (shortlisted 2014)

A pair of 40-something siblings negotiate complicated family histories. Understated and hugely enjoyable.

‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride (winner 2014)

A young woman explores her relationship with an older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Devastating and unique.

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann (shortlisted 2014)

One-hundred and fifty years of Irish history explored through a handful of seminal real-life characters — British aviators, an abolitionist and an American politician — together with three generations of fictional women from the same family. Bold and ambitious.

Solar Bones

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack (shortlisted 2017)

Civil engineer Marcus Conway stands in his kitchen and thinks about his life and what it is to be a good man. Audacious and unforgettable.

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard McLaverty (shortlisted 2018)

Gerry and Stella’s long marriage begins to unravel on a long weekend trip to Amsterdam. Intimate and moving.

‘The Closet Of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (shortlisted 2015)

A woman looks back on the time she took a summer job in Scotland and fell in love with a much older man who changed her life forever. Evocative and emotional.

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor (shortlisted 2020)

Struggling writer Bram Stoker runs the Lyceum Theatre in 1870s London, where he joins forces with theatre director Henry Irving and leading actress Ellen Terry, and marries a renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe. Full of Gothic atmosphere.

‘Nora’ by Nuala O’Connor (shortlisted 2022)

Nora Barnacle falls in love with writer James Joyce, becomes his muse and flees Ireland with him. Bold and bawdy.

Travelling in a strange land

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park (winner 2019)

A newly bereaved parent drives across England in a snowstorm to collect his sole surviving son from university to bring him home to Belfast. Contemplative and beautiful.

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield (winner 2021)

An elderly Irish woman gives shelter to a man who refuses to leave. Completely bonkers and bitterly funny.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

19 thoughts on “10 years of favourite reads from the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlists”

  1. OMG, there are sooo many books here that I haven’t read that sound so good. It’s hard to prioritise what to read. Thanks for the list.


    1. Glad to be of assistance! The great thing about this list is that there’s sure to be something to suit every mood: there’s comedy, drama, heartbreak, history, criminality etc

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I *have* read some of them, thanks to you and to Claire (Word-by-Word):
    The Blue Guitar, Small Things Like These, Solar Bones and Midwinter Break, and Nora, which I won in a giveaway.
    The only one I didn’t get on with was A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.
    I do like the sound of Beatlebone! I mean, imagine having an island and never going there!!


  3. I have no idea why Irish writing is so consistently and reliably good, but it is, isn’t it? Lots here that I’ve read, even more that I haven’t. Thanks for piquing my interest.


    1. I have a few theories, one of which is this: writing is VALUED and pursuing a career in it is seen as WORTHWHILE; it’s not dismissed as a hobby. It also has long roots in colonialism because when you are not allowed to speak your own language, you take the colonisers language and use it better than them.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Some wonderful sounding books here but I’ve only read the McBride. And I have read books by some of tugged others. I have always enjoyed Irish storytelling – resulting in Ireland not Scotland being on my first trip to the British Isles – but have read too little of it.


    1. Well, you’ve come to the right place if you want to read more of it! These are just the ones listed for this particular prize… I do read others that don’t make prize lists which are just as good!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Solar Bones is one of the great, great books, thank you for your recommendation. I feel I really should read most of the others (I’ve read the Blue Guitar) though not the 150 year one.


    1. I’m looking forward to McCormack’s new one, which is out at the end of the year (in the UK, not sure about Australia) and is called This Plague of Souls. It’s been more than 5 years since Solar Bones came out!


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