2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Winner

Congratulations to Irish writer Aingeala Flannery whose book The Amusements was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2023 at Listowel Writers’ Week overnight. She receives €20,000 in prize money.

In my review, I described the book, which is essentially a collection of loosely connected short stories, as having a “distinct William Trevor vibe”.

I read every shortlisted title, which was a rich and rewarding experience.

As a reminder, the books were:

The official announcement is here.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Audrey Magee, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2022.

When I was undertaking my Master of Journalism in the mid-1990s, I wrote a 5,000-word essay on how the Irish broadcast media was helping preserve and promote the Irish language, particularly in the Gaeltacht districts. I was thinking of how at risk the language was (in the years before the 2003 Official Languages Act was adopted) when I was reading Audrey Magee’s The Colony.

I was also thinking of J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, an anthropological study of the people who lived on these ancient rocky islands in Galway Bay, untouched by modernity at the turn of the 19th century, and how he sought to document their traditions and lifestyles before they disappeared forever.

The Colony, an intricately woven novel about the impacts of colonisation on a small island off the west coast of Ireland, is an amalgamation of these subject areas — and it is probably the best book I have read all year (so far).

Visitors and rivals

Jean-Pierre (JP) Masson, a Frenchman, is spending the summer (his fourth) on the island to document the Irish language, which is spoken almost exclusively by the inhabitants, while Mr Lloyd, an artist and an Englishman, is there (for the first time) to document the landscape in his paintings.

The two men become rivals in the sense that they wanted the island and its inhabitants all to themselves for a single summer — Masson believes Lloyd’s presence will affect the integrity of his study because the population will be more inclined to speak English with him. And Lloyd doesn’t like the idea of a noisy Frenchman, flirting with the island’s women and spoiling the peace and quiet he needs to do his art.

Their interleaved narratives are interspersed with short one-paragraph chapters revealing the state of play on the Irish mainland: it’s 1979 and The Troubles are in full swing.

Joseph McKee is walking on Saturday, June 9th to a butcher shop in Belfast, close to the amusement arcade on Castle Street where he works as a doorman. He is thirty-four years old, a Catholic and a member of the Official IRA. Two men from the Ulster Defence Association pull up beside him on a motorbike and shoot him four times in the back of the head, revving the engine to mask the sound of the gun.

A strange dependency

To survive, the islanders, who often make snide and funny comments about their visitors behind their backs (or in Irish), need the rent money Lloyd and Masson pay. The menfolk generally make their living from fishing, but in recent years many have died at sea and there’s a very real fear, especially among the women, that the community will starve when the harsh winter months arrive.

James, one of the young men on the island who spends his days hunting rabbits to supply his mother and grandmother with food for the table, dreams of escaping his adult fate — which is to become a fisherman — and begins to badger Lloyd into teaching him to paint. When he discovers an untapped talent for art, he believes he can head to London and make a different life for himself.

But even with Lloyd’s begrudging support, it’s clear that neither Lloyd nor Masson has any interest in helping the people they are using for their own ends. Once they have done their work, they will head back to England and France respectively and think nothing of the people they have left behind or of the potential harm they may have created by interfering in day-to-day life, if only for a few months.

Allegory and satire

The Colony is a wonderful allegory and biting satire about colonialism in all its oppressive, systematic glory.

Lloyd, who complains about the food and refuses to learn the Irish language, represents the worst of British colonialism; Masson, who is arrogant and demanding but damaged by his own colonial legacy (his mother was Algerian and yearned for her homeland), represents a sense of history repeating itself.

As both bicker and fight and argue with each other, it’s clear that neither party can see the potential long-reaching impact of their presence in a community that has become beholden to their money and influence.

You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.
Lloyd stuck his fork into his tart. He ate two pieces and drank some tea.
France is no better, said Lloyd. Look at Algeria. At Cameroon. At the Pacific Islands.
You’re deflecting.
Lloyd shrugged.
This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.
And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?
The English don’t, said Masson.

But the islanders aren’t portrayed as weak or inferior. Indeed, the boatman Micheál does take advantage, believing the visitors to be ludicrous, stupid — or both.

Many times I was reminded of the wonderful work of Magnus Mills, whose own fable-like tales have often dealt with similar issues. (A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, for instance, mocks colonialism, while The Field of the Cloth of Gold is about immigration and integration.) Even the mundane dialogue and understated comic moments feel like they have come out of Mills’ playbook.

But the prose style is more elegant, more lyrical than Mills, and often the way it is arranged on the page, stanza-like and with one word per line, it reads like poetry.

I adored The Colony, which was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. It has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, which will be named in a few days’ time. It would be a deserving winner.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers and Susan’s at A Life in Books. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.

This is my fifth and final book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adrian Duncan, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tuskar Rock; 166 pages; 2022.

When I was sent by the Soviet state to London to further my studies in calculus, knowing I would never become a great mathematician, I strayed instead into the foothills of anthropology.

It’s not every day you read a novel that is about surveying, peat extraction, electricity generation and exile — so full points to Berlin-based Irish writer Adrian Duncan for originality!

A Russian emigré in Ireland

The Geometer Lobachevsky, which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Walter Scott Prize and the 2023 Kerry Group Novel of the Year, is a unique story about a Russian man, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who finds himself in Ireland helping survey a peatland bog in the Midlands.

It is 1950, and Ireland is embarking on a new era of state-powered electricity generation inspired by the Soviet’s expertise in this subject area.

I am standing on the edge of a bog. There is wind. And sky meeting arm-opening land.

But Nikolai finds the work challenging, not because he can’t do it, but because his Irish counterparts don’t seem to understand the fundamental problems associated with measuring a landscape that moves and swells depending on its ever-changing water content.

His attempts to add rigour and mathematical accuracy to the process are viewed as comical and at odds with normal Irish conventions which is to just get things done with as little effort as possible (hence the quote above which refers to “anthropology”).

Exiled on an island

Not that it matters much in the long run, for Nikolai goes into hiding when he receives a letter calling him back to Leningrad to take up a “special appointment”.

In the pit of my stomach bubbles a pool of bile; I want to take a match to this pool, light it and burn it way, then take the match to what remains.

He reinvents himself as a Polish ex-POW who has discovered God and moves to an island on the Shannon estuary. Here he falls in with four devoutly Catholic Irish families and immerses themselves in their lives.

I live on the northern edge of this island of barely 300 acres, amid the hedges and pastures, in a gatehouse once owned by a member of what they call ‘the landed gentry’.

Eventually, the pull of his family back home, and the desire to see their faces for one last time, has him return to Russia — against his better judgement.

Strange and evocative tale

The Geometer Lobachevsky is an extraordinarily strange yet eerily evocative novel. The descriptions of landscapes and places are lush and cinematic.

References to mathematics infuse the text to remind us that Nikolai — the fictional grandson of the famous 19th-century Russian mathematician of the same name — is a geometer who sees everything around him through the lens of shapes and angles and numbers. It’s a neat touch.

But for all the descriptive language, and even the political commentary (which seems to suggest there was incompetency, corruption and violence within Ireland’s electricity industry as it was being set up), the narrative lacks propulsion. I kept wondering where the story was headed and didn’t much care in the end whether Nikolai lived or died.

It’s a book of moods, intrigue and vivid imagery. But I need more than that to truly fall in love with a story.

This is my fourth book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Aingeala Flannery, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 223 pages; 2022.

Aingeala Flannery’s The Amusements is a collection of loosely connected short stories set in Tramore, a traditional seaside town in County Waterford, on the southeast coast of Ireland, famed for its fairground and long beach.

There’s a distinct William Trevor “vibe” about the tales of small-town lives depicted here, so I felt validated to discover, via the author’s Acknowledgements, that she was inspired by Trevor’s work, explaining that his story Honeymoon in Tramore “set me off on a flight of fancy”.

The way Flannery explores the interconnectedness of people living in the same small community, where everyone knows everyone else, where people bear grudges and are suspicious of “blow-ins”, comes right out of Trevor’s “school of writing”. Even her characters — life-like, flawed and shaped by their local community — could have stepped out of his pages.

But that’s not to say her work is derivative; it’s not. The Amusements is a highly original, closely observed portrait of a town and its residents, both permanent and fleeting, and the ways in which their lives intersect over the course of 30 or so years.

Interconnected stories

There are 16 stories in total and most are framed around the Swaine family headed by bitter matriarch Nancy who never has a nice word to say about anyone.

My sister says our mother is ‘spitting venom’. I can’t tell any more if Tish is trying to warn me, or to guilt me. Seems to me Nancy always spat venom, was always out with somebody: Auntie Stasia, the next-door neighbour, my brother Michael and his ‘appalling’ wife. It’s not easy to stay in with a person whose default position is disapproval.

We first meet Nancy in “Star of the Sea” when she’s a widowed mother who breaks up her teenage daughter Stella’s close friendship with budding photographer Helen Grant. She appears again in “Making Friends” when she has a serious falling out with her new neighbour Vonnie Jacob. Later, in “Home” Nancy is residing in an aged-care facility and her now-adult daughter Stella —who has moved to London via New York —  returns to Tramore on a flying visit to see her. In “The Reason I’m Calling” she is dying, aged 68, and by “Woodbine” she has passed away.

Her children, Tish and Stella, star in separate stories: Tish is married to a “good husband” and has a young daughter, Evie, but seems harassed and discontent with her lot; Stella, who moved away to become an artist, lives an unconventional life and hates returning home to Tramore because it just reminds her of all the reasons she fled in the first place.

Brilliant characters

Other subsidiary characters from the town — such as the butcher Thaddeus Burke, the public health nurse Jenny Supple and the bed-and-breakfast landlady Muriel Power — are also featured. Many of these characters move from one tale to another, and events which happen in one story are concluded, or referenced, in the next. But there are also a few that end abruptly and don’t seem to add much to the overarching narrative, and I would question their inclusion.

Tramore is also a character in its own right, a place that comes alive in summer as a bustling tourist hot spot, but dies down in winter when the amusement arcades close and the fairground rides shut down.

But regardless of the season, idle gossip, reputational crises and personal struggles abound. Anyone who has lived in a small town or close-knit community will recognise the people in these pages.

The Amusements is a terrifically entertaining read, brimming with life in all its messy, chaotic complexity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

This is my third book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anya Bergman, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Literary prizes, Manilla Press, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Witches of Vardø’ by Anya Bergman

Fiction – paperback; Manilla Press; 385 pages; 2023.

In the winter of 1662-63, a total of 20 women died during the witch trials which took place on the island of Vardø, located in the extreme northeastern part of Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. The women had been put on trial for “making pacts with the devil”. Eighteen of them were burnt at the stake and two were tortured to death.

Anya Begman’s novel The Witches of Vardø is a fictionalised account of what happened. The characters are inspired by real people whose experiences are documented in court testimonies.

In writing the book, the author, who lived in Norway for a time, says her purpose was to “raise the lost voices of the women accused of witchcraft with tenderness while invigorating their seventeenth-century history with contemporary resonance”.

Dual storyline

I don’t tend to read historical fiction set earlier than the 19th century, so this novel took me right out of my comfort zone. It reads very much like a fable or old-fashioned tale, with lots of tell and not a huge amount of show, but once I got into the rhythm of the story (it’s a slow burn), I quite enjoyed it.

The narrative comprises two storylines told in alternate chapters from two different points of view. Both highlight the very real dangers of being female in a patriarchal society where men controlled every facet of a woman’s life, restricting them to domestic (and sexual) servitude.

Anna Rhodius, the daughter of a physician and a talented healer herself, was once the King of Denmark’s mistress. She has been banished to Vardø but she’s eager to return to her life of privilege and will do almost anything she can to go back to it, even if that means helping to prosecute other women for witchcraft.

Ingeborg Sigvaldsdatter is the teenage daughter of Zigri, a woman accused of witchcraft when her affair with a local merchant is discovered. Accompanied by Maren, another teenager whose mother has already been condemned as a witch, Ingeborg makes a long and treacherous journey to Vardø to try to rescue her mother who has been locked up in the governor’s fortress.

Anna’s story is told in the first person in a series of letters she addresses to the King, pleading to be reinstated in his eyes; Ingeborg’s is in the third person and takes a wider view, showing how her life was forever altered when her fisherman father and brother were lost at sea, leaving behind a wife and two daughters who were plunged into grief and struggled to find enough to eat.

Their stories are interleaved with folktales, including those of the Sámi people, and the mysterious appearance of a lynx with golden eyes.

Plot-driven story

The Witches of Vardø is a largely plot-driven novel that charts events leading up to and including Zigri’s trial.

It moves at a relatively slow pace and there’s a lot of detail (about Ingeborg’s journey and Anna’s past affair), which sometimes feels laboured. But the writing is atmospheric, chilly and Gothic by turn. The depictions of romantic love and the betrayals that can sometimes come with it are beautifully evoked.

Unsurprisingly, the witch trial that forms the climax of the novel is powerful and violent, but the aftermath, in which Maren and Ingeborg escape to lead lives of their own feels redemptive — and hopeful.

For another take on this novel, please see this review at Theresa Smith Writes.

A lasting memorial

By Stylegar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47091822

Just to hammer home the point that the witch trials were a real thing, these photographs show the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, which commemorates the 91 victims who were convicted of witchcraft and executed in Finnmark in the 17th century. A collaboration between the artist Louise Bourgeois and the architect Peter Zumthor, it comprises a 125m memorial hall (above) and a burning chair (below).

You can read more about the memorial at this Norwegian tourist website (note, it’s in Norwegian but you can translate it) or via this Wikipedia page.

By Bjarne Riesto – https://www.flickr.com/photos/eager/13571909504, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48501399

This is my second book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

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?

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

Farewell Stella Prize reading season, hello Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award reading season!

Yes, no sooner does one literary prize announce its winner than another reveals a shortlist — albeit on opposite sides of the world! My favourite literary prize — the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, which I’ve been following since 2017 — has unveiled its shortlist^^ of five novels.

This award, which is worth €20,000 to the winner, has previously introduced me to some very fine Irish fiction, including Nuala O’Connor’s Nora, Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, Anakana Schofield’s Bina and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. In fact, I don’t think I have ever come across a dud novel shortlisted for this prize.

Last year, Claire Keegan won the award for her novella Small Things Like These.

This year’s judges, Patrick Gale and Manveen Rana, have a lot to live up to! They have selected five novels (from more than 50 submitted), which all look tempting. I’ve previously read one, Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, and I have The Colony and The Amusements on my TBR already, so my usual mission to read everything on the shortlist should be straightforward.

Here’s the shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath:

‘The Witches of Vardø’ by Anya Bergman

Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. After recently widowed Zigri’s affair with the local merchant is discovered, she is sent to the fortress at Vardø to be tried as a witch. Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch – whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family. Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent in disgrace to the island of Vardø. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court? These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King. In an age weighted against them, they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.

‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan

It is 1950 and Nikolai Lobachevsky, great-grandson of his illustrious namesake, is surveying a bog in the Irish Midlands, where he studies the locals, the land and their ways. One afternoon, soon after he arrives, he receives a telegram calling him back to Leningrad for a ‘special appointment’. Lobachevsky may not be a great genius but he is not foolish: he recognises a death sentence when he sees one and leaves to go into hiding on a small island in the Shannon estuary, where the island families harvest seaweed and struggle to split rocks. Here Lobachevsky must think about death, how to avoid it and whether he will ever see his home again.

‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery

In the seaside town of Tramore, County Waterford, visitors arrive in waves with the tourist season, reliving the best days of their childhoods in its caravan parks, chippers and amusement arcades. Local teenager Helen Grant is indifferent to the charm of her surroundings; she dreams of escaping to art college with her glamorous classmate Stella Swaine and, from there, taking on the world. But leaving Tramore is easier said than done. Though they don’t yet know it, Helen and Stella’s lives are pulled by tides beyond their control. Following the Grant and Swaine families and their neighbours over three decades, The Amusements is a luminous and unforgettable story about roads taken and not taken – and a brilliantly observed portrait of a small-town community.

‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy

There is nothing special about the day Cushla meets Michael, a married man from Belfast, in the pub owned by her family. But here, love is never far from violence, and this encounter will change both of their lives forever. As people get up each morning and go to work, school, church or the pub, the daily news rolls in of another car bomb exploded, another man beaten, killed or left for dead. In the class Cushla teaches, the vocabulary of seven-year-old children now includes phrases like ‘petrol bomb’ and ‘rubber bullets’. And as she is forced to tread lines she never thought she would cross, tensions in the town are escalating, threatening to destroy all she is working to hold together. Tender and shocking, Trespasses is an unforgettable debut of people trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times.

‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee

He handed the easel to the boatman, reaching down the pier wall towards the sea. Mr Lloyd has decided to travel to the island by boat without an engine – the authentic experience. Unbeknownst to him, Mr Masson will also soon be arriving for the summer. Both will strive to encapsulate the truth of this place – one in his paintings, the other by capturing its speech, the language he hopes to preserve. But the people who live on this rock – three miles long and half a mile wide – have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken and what is given in return. Soft summer days pass, and the islanders are forced to question what they value and what they desire. As the autumn beckons, and the visitors head home, there will be a reckoning.

Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

You can read more about the prize via the official announcement.

Have you read any of these novels? Or is there anything on the list that particularly intrigues you?

^^ No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist is revealed about a month before Listowel Writers’ Week — Ireland’s oldest literary festival — and the winner is named on the opening night of the festival. This year the festival runs from 31st May to 4th June.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Louise Kennedy, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Trespasses’ by Louise Kennedy

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Circus; 320 pages; 2022.

Winner of the An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2022 and shortlisted for a slew of other awards, Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is the tale of a doomed love affair set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

Every second person in the world seems to have read it — and loved it. But as much as I enjoyed it on a superficial level, I found the storyline predictable and cliched.

At one point, Cushla Lavery, the main character, tells her lover: “This is going to end badly, isn’t it?” And I wondered why it had taken her so long to figure it out because when a young woman falls for an older married man it never really ends well.

Throw in the complexities of their religious divide — she’s Catholic, he’s Protestant — class differences and a bloody and violent sectarian war playing out around them, then the chance of a happy-ever-after seems particularly far-fetched. But maybe I’m being harsh — or too cynical.

A secret affair

The main story is about Cushla’s clandestine relationship with Michael Agnew, an older married man she meets in the “garrison town” pub owned by her family. She’s from working-class Catholic stock and teaches at the local primary school. He’s an Ulster protestant and works as a criminal barrister in Belfast.

But there are subsidiary storylines that showcase other aspects of Cushla’s life and go some way to explain why she’s embarked on a forbidden relationship.

These include looking after her widowed mother, Gina, who is an alcoholic and sometimes can’t even get out of bed she’s so drunk or hungover; working evenings in the pub run by her brother Eamonn and having to serve the clientele, some of which are British soldiers; and taking an outside interest in the care of one of her young students, seven-year-old Davy McGeown, whose father is the victim of a particularly vicious attack by paramilitaries. This all place demands on her time and her inner resources, so that there is little left for her; she’s too busy mothering everyone else.

Did Cushla fancy Michael because he was the only man she knew who didn’t talk incessantly about his mummy?

A friendship with a male teacher, Gerry Devlin, who many think is her boyfriend, acts as a convenient cover. But many of her rendezvous with Michael happen out in the open when he draws her into his sophisticated circle of friends by inviting her along to teach them the Irish language.

One-sided relationship

But right from the start the relationship is one-sided and we know next to nothing about Michael, except that he has had many affairs and he’s the one that calls the shots:

He would never give her more than this. For her there would just be liaisons arranged an hour or two in advance, couplings in lay-bys, evenings at his friends’ house under unconvincing pretexts. When her thoughts flitted – briefly – to his wife, the guilt at what she was doing to her did not take.

What makes their relationship seem even more reckless is the frisson of danger that infects the whole city in an “unspeakable war”. The threat of death, from bombs and guns, is on every page. Some chapters open with a series of news headlines — about deadly explosions and arrests and caches of weapons being found — to hammer home the point that this affair is happening in a war zone.

This death and violence are so normalised that the pair never discuss how Michael’s job paints him as a terrorist target…

As a story of a woman navigating multiple battlefields, Trespasses is an entertaining read.

It’s largely told as a series of vignettes, with the affair underpinning the narrative. But because I knew exactly where that narrative was headed, some of the vignettes felt like filler. That said, the denouement is suitably powerful and shocking and leaves a lasting impression.

I liked the book, I just didn’t love it.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on Our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: through the eyes of a young Derry schoolboy, this gently nuanced novel shows what it is like to grow up while The Troubles rage around you.

‘Lies of Silence’ by Brian Moore: A heart-hammering tale set during The Troubles in which the IRA orders a hotel manager to park a car in the hotel’s car park. If he refuses, his wife, who has been taken captive, will be murdered.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23, which runs throughout March. I’m a little behind so that’s why this review is more than a week late. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Update 1 May 2023: This book has been shortlisted for the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. I am attempting to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced at the end of May. This qualifies as the first book read (out of a total of five).

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Winner

Congratulations to Irish writer Claire Keegan whose novella Small Things Like These was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2022 at Listowel Writers’ Week today. She receives €20,000 prize money.

I read every book on the shortlist and there wasn’t a dud one on it. My favourite was Nuala O’Connor’s NORA, but I think Keegan’s story is a worthy winner.

In my review, published long before the book was added to the shortlist, I described it as “a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time”.

There doesn’t seem to be an official press release about the winning announcement and only a fleeting mention in the Irish Times, so I can’t reveal what the judges thought or said about the book. But if you haven’t read it yet, do hunt it out: I’m yet to see a bad word written about it.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.