2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

Kit de Waal wins 2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

Writers' WeekCongratulations to Kit de Waal for winning the 2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award late last week for her debut novel, My Name is Leon.

I’m delighted Kit won the prize: in my review I described this book as “the most bittersweet novel I’ve read so far this year”. I thought it was a really delightful story, the kind that I want to press into everyone’s hand. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out on a real treat.

The €15,000 prize was presented on opening night of the annual Listowel Writers’ Week held in Co. Kerry.

The judges were AL Kennedy and Neel Mukherjee.

You can read more about the announcement on the official blog.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Neil Hegarty, Publisher, Setting

‘Inch Levels’ by Neil Hegarty

Inch Levels

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 352 pages; 2016.

Set in the Irish borders at the times of The Troubles, Neil Hegarty’s Inch Levels is a rich and complex novel about family, community and the secrets we keep.

A hospital patient

Patrick Jackson is a history teacher in his 30s who has been diagnosed with cancer. He’s lying in a hospital bed looking back on his life. He knows he hasn’t got much time left, so doesn’t feel encumbered by the need to say the right thing. He has a combative relationship with the nurses who patronise him, for instance, and he’s not entirely civil to his mother, the coolly unemotional Sarah, whom he has struggled to understand his whole life. And he makes it entirely clear he does not want to see his brother-in-law Robert, whom he detests, although his sister, Margaret, is welcome.

From Patrick’s behaviour we slowly come to learn of the complex relationships within this small Northern Irish family, of the unexpressed sorrow that has plagued his mother and of the secret domestic abuse that his sister has endured during her marriage.

But there are fond memories too: of swimming at Inch Levels, a local beach, of childhood picnics, and of the kind-hearted but simple-minded Cassie, an orphan who entered his mother’s family long ago and is now a cherished  family member in her own right.

External impacts

The story is framed around external impacts on the family. First, there is violence in the form of the Second World War and later the Troubles, which erodes normality and leaves a lasting impact. Sarah’s first boyfriend, an American soldier, dies when a sea mine explodes off the coast of Donegal in 1943; almost 30 years later Patrick and Margaret get caught up in the events of Bloody Sunday.

And then there is the murder of an eight-year-old local girl, Christine Casey, whose body is found dumped at the edge of the lake at Inch Levels. A month later Christine’s mother kills herself. This local tragedy plagues Neil, who cannot comprehend how such a thing could happen.

All these events are intertwined in Patrick’s memory as he tries to make sense of his life so far. Just as Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones examines how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, Inch Levels looks at the impact of larger events on people’s personal circumstances. Eventually all the loose threads are tied together to deliver a powerful and redemptive conclusion.

A  slow burner

But this is not an easy read. It’s a slow burner (it took me two goes to get into) and the narrative unfolds in a gentle, understated manner. There is no big drama here — despite the bombs, despite the family tragedies and despite the deaths.

It’s written in an eloquent voice, with gorgeous descriptions of the passing seasons, the landscape and the world beyond Patrick’s hospital window.

And there’s something rather insightful about the author’s ability to capture emotions and tensions between family members without turning the whole story into a melodrama. At times it very much reminded me of Deirdre Madden’s extraordinarily good One by One in the Darkness, which is set in a similar part of the world at a similar time.

For other takes on Inch Levels, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books and Eric’s at Lonesome Reader.

This is my 5th and final book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Mike McCormack, Publisher, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack

Solar Bones

Fiction – paperback; Tramp Press; 224 pages; 2016.

On the face of it Solar Bones by Mike McCormack should not work. I can’t imagine how anyone would agree to publish a novel boiled down to two unescapable facts: the entire story is written stream of consciousness style and there’s not a single full-stop in more than 200 pages of prose.

What’s more it covers the unholy trinity of subjects polite people should never discuss at dinner parties: sex, religion and politics.

And yet there’s no denying this is a brilliant novel, a thrilling novel, a mesmerising, hypnotic novel. I read it enthralled by not only the beauty of the language, but the ways in which McCormack gets to the very heart of the extraordinary ordinariness of people’s lives, how the accumulation of little acts over time creates a whole life, and the ways in which our integrity, our moral goodness, is tested every day.

One man’s story

The book is narrated in the first person by a middle-aged man called Marcus Conway. He’s a civil engineer living in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland with his wife Mairead. They have two grown up children: Agnes, who’s making a name for herself as a performance artist, and Darragh, who’s travelling around Australia on an extended gap year.

The narrative charts Marcus’s train of thought as he stands in his kitchen listening to the Angelus bell…

      ringing out over its villages and townlands, over the fields and hills and bogs in between, six chimes of three across a minute and a half, a summons struck on the lip of the void which gathers this parish together through

all its primary and secondary roads with

all its schools and football pitches

 all its bridges and graveyards

all its shops and pubs

the builder’s yard and health clinic

the community centre

the water treatment plant and

the handball alley

the made world with

all the focal points around which a parish like this gathers itself as surely as

the world itself did at the beginning of time, through

mountains, rivers and lakes

As you can see from the above quote, the narrative reads like poetry in places, helped in part by the clever use of line breaks which helps guide the reader through the rhythm of this one-sentence novel, lending it a rather lovely musicality.

A surreal adventure through time

As we follow Marcus’s inner-most thoughts we get taken on a rather surreal adventure that includes everything from the ups and downs of raising a family to the difficulties associated with being an engineer working on important projects for which politicians take all the credit. There are poignant moments, comic episodes, angry outbursts, instances of shock, pride, awe, and the occasional wry observation.

This seamless narrative, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, charts Marcus’s sometimes strained relationships with his children, his father, his sister and his wife. But there’s a refrain here: Marcus is constantly exploring what it is to be a good father, a good son, a good brother, a good husband. Even his career — or maybe especially his career — he is often tested by men who want to take short cuts, to flout the law, to ignore the long-term benefits in favour of the short-term.

And it is, indeed, this lack of accountability of those people in power (the novel is largely set during the boom years of the Celtic tiger) that results in the near hospitalisation of Marcus’s wife, Mairead, who succumbs to a dreadful illness caused by contamination of the local water supply. But, as the story draws to its final, shocking, conclusion, it is not Mairead that Marcus need be worried about…

Audacious and unforgettable

This is an audacious and unforgettable novel, perhaps my favourite read of 2017 so far.

Last year Solar Bones won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year. Next week, I suspect it will win a third accolade: the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

This is my 4th book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Kit de Waal, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 264 pages; 2016.

Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon wins the accolade of being the most bittersweet novel I’ve read so far this year. This delightful story about a mixed race boy going into foster care had me laughing and crying, often on the same page. It’s the kind of book I want to press into everyone’s hands, whispering the words, here, read this it really is that good.

A new life in foster care

Set in the UK in the early 1980s, the story is written in the third person but presented through the eyes of Leon, a nine-year-old boy, who lives with his mother and his newborn half-brother, Jake. But not all is well. Leon’s mother spends a lot of time in bed and seems uninterested in her new baby, leaving Leon in charge.

Eventually, Leon and Jake are taken into care. They are fostered by an older woman, Maureen, who is kind-hearted, loving and able to provide a stable environment for the brothers. The boys thrive.

But when Jake is 10 months old the brothers are split up: Jake is adopted by a young white couple, while Leon, who is too old and the “wrong” colour, is left with Maureen. Leon begins to understand he’s been abandoned: he might not see his beloved brother again (despite promises to the contrary), his mother has effectively deserted him (she’s in a rehabilitation clinic) and he no longer has any contact with his dad (who ran off when he was a youngster).

He’s a good kid though. Aside from some light-fingered thieving (money out of Maureen’s purse), he settles into his new life — only to have things up in the air again when Maureen falls ill. This is where Maureen’s older (and slightly rougher, for want of a better word) sister, Sylvia, steps into the breach:

There are too many things that Leon doesn’t like and he’s made a list of them in his head.
Sylvia’s home.
Having to move to Sylvia’s house even though they said he could stay at Maureen’s house but they lied. Sylvia only stayed one night in Maureen’s house then she said she was sick of it and she was going back to her own house and he had to go with her.
The sheets on his new bed in Sylvia’s house. They’re pink.
The way Sylvia keeps going to visit Maureen in the daytime when he’s at his new school.
His new school. Again.
Sylvia calling Maureen ‘Mo’ all the time or ‘Our Mo’ to leave Leon out.
Nobody letting him talk about Jake. Maureen would let him talk about Jake and she would join in.
No one remembering that he’s got a brother.
[…] His mum not coming to get him.

When Sylvia later gives Leon a bike a new world of relative freedom opens up to him. He regularly cycles to the local allotments, where he finds a father substitute, Mr Burrows, a black man, who takes him under his wing and shows him how to plant vegetables and grow things. But even in this seemingly safe environment, there are dangers lurking, especially if you’re a nine-year-old boy caught up in events larger than yourself…

Accomplished debut novel

My Name is Leon is Kit de Waal’s first novel. Not that you’d know it. Her writing is accomplished. She really taps into the mindset of a young boy, caught between two worlds, who is smart and kind and emotionally savvy, but who is completely vulnerable to forces outside of his control. Even when he starts to do naughty things, you can’t help but love him, to want to reach into the book to help him and set him on the straight and narrow once again.

And the characterisation is superb, not only Leon, but his mentally frail mother, Carol, who just can’t get her act together; the vast cast of “anonymous” social workers, who hold Leon’s future in their hands; the large-hearted Maureen, who loves Leon like her own, and her rough-and-ready sister Sylvia, who comes to feel the same way; and Leon’s allotment friends, who become much-needed role models and mentors.

The scene-setting is perfectly pitched, with subtle references to events of the era, such as the royal wedding between Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, and the race riots in Toxteth and Chapeldown, providing a proper sense of time and place.

The machinations of the fostering system and the role of social workers are expertly conveyed, perhaps no surprise given that de Waal has worked in criminal and family law, and has sat on adoption panels and written  training manuals on adoption and foster care. Her inside knowledge makes Leon’s tale all the more authentic — and heart breaking.

Perhaps the only flaw in the novel is that the plot occasionally feels laboured, but that’s a minor quibble for a book that is so full of spark and love and heart. This is the kind of story that leaves a marked impression on the reader. It’s funny, bittersweet and emotional, but it also has a feel-good factor. I loved its endearing qualities and the way in which it so perfectly captures a complicated world through the eyes of a child.

My Name is Leon was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award and the Desmond Elliot Prize. It has also been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, the winner of which will be named at the end of this month.

This is my 3rd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey: a heart-breaking tale of a young girl, growing up in Dublin, caught in the fallout of her family’s disintegration.

Of A Boy by Sonya Hartnett (published in the UK/US as What the Birds See): a five-star read about a young boy being raised by his grandmother in suburban Australia in 1977.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Nothing on Earth’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on earth

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan Ireland; 192 pages; 2017.

Irish writer Conor O’Callaghan has taken the concept of a “ghost estate” — an unfinished housing development abandoned in the wake of the collapse of the Irish economy — and turned it into a modern horror story. His debut novel Nothing on Earth will have you checking the locks, making sure all your windows are closed and on tenterhooks for every strange noise you might happen to hear.

Yet this book, which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, isn’t about ghouls or vampires or anything we might normally associate with the horror genre. It’s suspenseful simply because the plot is dotted with unexplained events, which play on your imagination, and O’Callaghan’s lyrical writing style, infused with a haunting, foreboding quality, ratchets up the tension.

Hot August nights

The story is narrated by someone looking back on a series of strange events that happened during the  “hottest August in living memory”. It begins with the sudden arrival of a 12-year-old “skin-and-bone” girl on the doorstep of his home:

She looked like one who had neither eaten proper food nor inhaled fresh air for years. Her teeth were yellow, her nails uncut and filthy. Her skin was sunburned, except for those white lines that had been covered by straps. It was also marked in places, her skin was: scratches, creases, streaks of dirt, and words.

The girl, who has a stilted, foreign accent, isn’t a complete stranger.  She had come to public attention when her mother went missing a few months earlier. They had been renting a house on a nearby ghost estate. Now the girl, who calls herself Helen, says her papa is missing too — “One minute he is behind you. And next time he was gone” — and it soon emerges her aunt, who had lived with them, is nowhere to be found either.

What has happened to the three adults? And where did the security guard who lived on site in a caravan disappear to? What does the landlord know? Who are the mysterious neighbours Helen talks about? Can the girl be trusted? Is she telling the truth?

Strange events

The story spools back to the arrival of Helen’s family on the ghost estate and charts how events unfolded over the summer. What begins as a semi-idyllic existence — heady summer days, sunbathing in the garden, drinking wine and having a laugh — morphs into something more sinister as the nights give way to strange knocking on the front door and mysterious messages written in the dust on the windows.

The enigmatic nature of the story is its greatest strength. You’re never certain if something terrible has happened to Helen’s mother — was she murdered, for instance, or did she simply escape to a better life? Why isn’t her husband, Paul, upset, or is he just putting on a brave face for the sake of his young daughter? And has Helen’s auntie come to harm, or did she do a runner with the security guard who may, or may not, have been her lover?

This is the kind of novel that holds more questions than answers. You are never quite sure who to believe. And you’re not even sure that the events being described even happened.

It’s difficult to explain how O’Callaghan achieves this without giving away plot spoilers, but let’s just say it all adds up to a haunting and troubling and deeply unsettling read. There’s an undercurrent of menace running throughout the storyline, which gives it a necessary tension. And it’s hugely compelling; I wanted to eat it up in one long hungry sitting but had to ration it out because, you know, a little thing like going to work got in the way. I’d recommended clearing your schedule: once you begin Nothing on Earth you’ll want to read it all in one greedy gulp. Just remember to lock the doors.

This is my 2nd book for the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award

If you liked this, you might also like:

Broken Harbour by Tana French: A crime novel set on a ghost estate that brims with menace and unease.

2017 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Writers' Week

Now that my Stella Prize reading is over, it’s time to shift my attention to another literary project: the Kerry Group Novel of the Year.

This is one of my favourite book prizes. It’s an annual award — worth €15,000 — for Irish fiction. Over the years it has introduced me to some brilliant reads — The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, to name but two — so I usually pay attention to it.

This year the winner will be announced at the opening ceremony of Writers’ Week at Listowel, in Kerry, Ireland on 31 May. Before then I hope to have read all five titles on the shortlist.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, including a synopsis. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

Inch Levels
Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty
“Patrick Jackson lies on his deathbed in Derry and recalls a family history marked by secrecy and silence, and a striking absence of conventional pieties. He remembers the death of an eight-year-old girl, whose body was found on reclaimed land called Inch Levels on the shoreline of Lough Swilly. And he is visited by his beloved but troubled sister Margaret and by his despised brother-in-law Robert, and by Sarah, his hard, unchallengeable mother. Each of them could talk about events in the past that might explain the bleakness of their relationships, but leaving things unsaid has become a way of life. Guilt and memory beat against them, as shock waves from bombs in Derry travel down the river to shake the windows of those who have escaped the city.”

My Name is Leon 

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
“Leon is nine, and has a perfect baby brother called Jake. They have gone to live with Maureen, who has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. But the adults are speaking in low voices, and wearing Pretend faces. They are threatening to give Jake to strangers. Since Jake is white and Leon is not. As Leon struggles to cope with his anger, certain things can still make him smile — like Curly Wurlys, riding his bike fast downhill, burying his hands deep in the soil, hanging out with Tufty (who reminds him of his dad), and stealing enough coins so that one day he can rescue Jake and his mum. Evoking a Britain of the early eighties, My Name is Leon is a heart-breaking story of love, identity and learning to overcome unbearable loss. Of the fierce bond between siblings. And how – just when we least expect it – we manage to find our way home.”

The Wonder
by Emma Donoghue
“An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth — is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.”

Solar Bones
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
“Once a year, on All Souls Day, it is said that the dead may return; Solar Bones tells the story of one such visit. Set in the west of Ireland as the recession is about to strike, this novel is a portrait of one man’s experience when his world threatens to fall apart. Wry and poignant, Solar Bones is an intimate portrayal of one family, capturing how careless decisions ripple out into waves, and how our morals are challenged in small ways every day.”

Nothing on earth
Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
“It is the hottest August in living memory. A frightened girl bangs on a door. A man answers. From the moment he invites her in, his world will never be the same again. She will tell him about her family, and their strange life in the show home of an abandoned housing estate. The long, blistering days spent sunbathing; the airless nights filled with inexplicable noises; the words that appear on the windows, written in dust. Why are members of her family disappearing, one by one? Is she telling the truth? Is he? In a world where reality is beginning to blur, how can we know what to believe?”

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