2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Winner

Writers' WeekCongratulations to David Park whose novel Travelling in a Strange Land was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2019 earlier this week.

The prize is worth €15,000 to the winner.

It was presented at a special ceremony at the 49th Listowel Writers’ Week festival in Co. Kerry, Ireland.

Frank Hayes, representing sponsor Kerry Group, said: “As the ‘Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award’ nears its 25th year, it continues to be a much sought after accolade in the Irish literary calendar and brings global prestige to the literature of Ireland.

“Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors and most especially to our Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year winner, David Park, for his illuminating work Travelling in a Strange Land.”

More than 50 Irish novels were submitted for this prestigious prize. I had planned to read the entire shortlist of five novels but only managed to read three — as ever, the standard (of what I read) was superb, so I’ll be reading the other two shortly.

You can read the official press release here.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sally Rooney, Setting, TBR40

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 288 pages; 2018.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has had so many rave reviews and won so many prizes and accolades — the latest, The Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, was bestowed last week — that I’m not sure I can add anything new to the conversation.

But what I can do is give you my reaction to this stylish novel, which is essentially an on-off romance between two people from the same Irish country town over the course of four years (2011 to 2015).

Brief overview

For those of you that may not yet have read the book, here’s a brief overview. Marianne and Connell both attend the same secondary school on the west coast of Ireland, but Marianne is in a different socio-economic class to Connell because Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house.

The pair are different in other ways: Marianne is a loner and regarded by her classmates as a bit kooky and someone to avoid, while Connell is popular and good looking and leads a hectic social life.

But both are academically minded and good students, and this is what brings them to the attention of one another, a mutual respect for their brains and intellectual capabilities. Secretly, they become friends, then lovers, but no one knows about their relationship, which is kept hidden from fellow classmates — it’s really only Connell’s mother that twigs there’s something going on between the two of them.

The book charts the ups and downs of this unspecified relationship as the pair leave school, move from the village they’ve both grown up in and forge new lives in Dublin, where they attend Trinity, Marianne to study history and politics, Connell to study English.

Unusual structure

Normal People is structured in an interesting way. It’s very much a narrative composed of set pieces framed around scenes — in bedrooms, in kitchens, at parties, in cars — that are essentially people talking but which give great insight into the individual character’s thoughts and behaviours and fears and hopes.

Indeed, this is a dialogue driven novel but there is not a single quotation mark in sight. It’s written it in such a way that it’s perfectly clear when people are speaking and who is doing it. (I heard Sally Rooney speak at her only London event earlier this month where she explained that using quotation marks would just add extra clutter on the page that wasn’t needed. )

Paradoxically, it’s often the things that people don’t say in this story that provides it’s edgier moments: when characters hold back from making confessions or being completely honest or not making the most of the opportunity to steer the conversation in ways that would make their lives easier but which might cause pain or embarrassment in the short term.

The narrative itself jumps forward in spurts, with each chapter heading indicating how much time has passed since the last chapter  — for instance “Four Months Later (August 2011)” and “Three Months Later” (March 2014)” — giving a sense of movement and fast pace to what is essentially a deeply nuanced and measured story.

The UK paperback edition

But did I like it?

I have to admit that I thought the book dragged in places and I didn’t think there was enough tension between the characters. I wanted more action, perhaps more resolution, between Marianne and Connell. I kept waiting for something to happen, something big that would formalise their relationship or finish it. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this doesn’t happen.

But what I did like — and it took me awhile to come to this realisation — is the ways in which Marianne and Connell’s relationship is influenced by the exterior forces of class and money, by their own sense of self-worth (or lack thereof) and desire to be “normal”, and their inherent mutual attraction regardless of circumstance or upbringing. I also liked how Rooney occasionally shows how some issues, such as domestic violence, cut across the class divide. (It wasn’t until I heard Rooney speak at the event I attended that I discovered she calls herself a Marxist; with hindsight I can very much see that influence in her work, though I would not call this book political; it’s much more subtle than that.)

Normal People is essentially a universal story about individuals finding their place in a world that is complex, one that has obstacles in place which may hinder opportunities for success, whether because of class, gender or upbringing. And yet it also shows how social mobility is (occasionally) possible, how we can influence each other for the better and find ways to seek love and happiness against the odds. It ends on a hopeful note.

That said, I still liked Conversations with Friends better.

Added extra

If you are interested, this is the aforementioned event I attended at the beginning of May, which has been recorded in full by the London Review of Books, which hosted the evening in the gorgeous surrounds of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London.

This is my 3rd book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 19th for #TBR40. I bought it late last year after a member of my book group raved about it. I treated myself to the Waterstones’ exclusive hardback edition.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, John Boyne, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne


Fiction – Kindle edition; Black Swan; 488 pages; 2019.

According to an old proverb, ambition is like setting a ladder to the sky — a pointless waste of energy. It can also lead to a long and painful fall.

John Boyne’s latest novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is very much focused on ambition and what happens when you forsake all else — your relationships, your family, your ethics — in the desire to succeed at all cost.

It’s a rip-roaring read, starring one of the most manipulative and self-obsessed characters you are ever likely to come across in contemporary fiction, and I loved the way it explores personal morality through the prism of a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists.

That writer is Maurice Swift, a charming, good-looking man, whose terribly immoral tale is told in three parts using three different points of view.

In part one we meet the famous German writer whose career Maurice destroys by penning a novel that reveals he’d unwittingly sent two Jews to their deaths during World War Two; in the second, we are introduced to Maurice’s wife, an English tutor and successful writer, whose manuscript he steals when she’s hospitalised and which he publishes under his own name to much critical and commercial acclaim; and finally, in part three, we hear directly from Maurice himself, now an elderly man down and out in London, at a time when his ego is being massaged by a literature student who befriends, then interviews, him for his dissertation.

The book also features two highly entertaining interludes — the first has Maurice visiting Gore Vidal in his Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest, on the Amalfi Coast, propositioning him and then being humiliated by him; and in the second, we’re thrust into Maurice’s new life, about a decade later, where he runs a successful literary magazine in Manhattan but steals the ideas in submissions for his own ends.

Success at all costs

As you can probably tell, Maurice isn’t a particularly nice man: he will stop at nothing to pursue his dream of becoming a famous writer. Self-absorbed, sociopathic and narcissistic, Maurice doesn’t let his inability to come up with creative ideas, nor his lack of writing skills, hold him back. He will use people, steal their intellectual copyright, purloin their personal stories and pass off others’ work as his own. He truly doesn’t care.

Part of the fun of reading this rather chunky novel — apart from the cracking pace, the snappy dialogue and the withering put downs — is wondering whether Maurice’s repellent behaviour is ever going to catch up with him. Will anyone realise what he’s up to and put an end to it — and his career?

The book also has some tongue-in-cheek digs at the publishing industry, including the obsession with literary prizes, creative writing courses, publicity “buzz” and bestseller lists. It’s like a hilarious insider’s take down of everything that’s truly rotten with the literary world.

But the best thing about A Ladder to the Sky is that it is a genuinely fun read, with a brilliantly redemptive ending. I galloped through it, marvelling at Boyne’s rich mastery of plot and storytelling, and his uncanny ability to turn the art of novel writing into something so dastardly and chilling. Hands down, this is my favourite read of the year so far, and I’m now eager to read more by this super-talented writer —recommendations welcome in the comment box below.

This is my second book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I plan to read all of the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced on 29 May.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Writers' WeekIt seems like book prize short- and longlists are coming thick and fast right now. Today the shortlist for one of my favourite literary prizes — the Kerry Group Novel of the Year for Irish fiction — was announced.

Over the years this prize, which is worth €15,000 to the winner,  has introduced me to some brilliant novels, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and  My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, so I usually pay attention to it in the hope it will introduce me to a few more.

As per tradition, the winner will be announced at Writers’ Week at Listowel, in Kerry, Ireland on 29 May. Before then I hope to have read all five titles on the shortlist; I’ve already had one and all the others are on my TBR.

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.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
“You’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, that it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. It can lead to a long and painful fall. If you look hard enough, you will find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be-novelist Maurice Swift decides early on in his career. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated author Erich Ackerman gives Maurice an opportunity. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell; whether or not he should is another matter. Once Maurice has made his name, he finds himself in need of a fresh idea. He doesn’t care where he finds it, as long as it helps him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous, but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse. This is a novel about ambition.”

The Hoarder by Jess Kidd (NB: in the US, this book is published under the title Mr Flood’s Last Resort)
“Unintentional psychic Maud Drennan arrives to look after Cathal Flood, a belligerent man hiding in his filthy, cat-filled home. Her job is simple: clear the rubbish, take care of the patient. But the once-grand house has more to reveal than simply its rooms. There is a secret here, and whether she likes it or not, Maud may be the one to finally uncover what has previously been kept hidden…”

The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin
“Abandoned by her parents when they resettle in Meath, Mary O Conaill faces the task of raising her younger siblings alone. Padraig is disappeared, Sean joins the Christian Brothers, Bridget escapes and her brother Seamus inherits the farm. Maeve is sent to serve a family of shopkeepers in the local town. Later, pregnant and unwed, she is placed in a Magdalene Laundry where her twins are forcibly removed. Spanning the 1930s to the 70s, this sweeping multi-generational family saga follows the psychic and physical displacement of a society in freefall after independence. Wit, poetic nuance, vitality and authenticity inhabit this remarkable novel. The Cruelty Men tells an unsentimental tale of survival in a country proclaimed as independent but subjugated by silence.”

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park
“The world is shrouded in snow. With transport ground to a halt, Tom must venture out into a transformed and treacherous landscape to collect his son, sick and stranded in student lodgings. But on this solitary drive from Belfast to Sunderland, Tom will be drawn into another journey, one without map or guide, and is forced to chart pathways of family history haunted by memory and clouded in regret. Travelling in a Strange Land is a work of exquisite loss and transformative grace. It is a novel about fathers and sons, grief, memory, family and love; about the gulfs that lie between us and those we love, and the wrong turns that we take on our way to find them.”

Normal People by Sally Rooney
“Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life — a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us — blazingly — about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.”

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. There’s just over 10 weeks to do it!