2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Niamh Campbell, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.

When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.

And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.

Two men six years apart

The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.

The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.

Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.

When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.

She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.

Style over substance

There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.

This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.

Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.

If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.

But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.

This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.

Annabel has reviewed it too.

This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last August.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, TBR 21

‘Threshold’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 316 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Have you ever read a book and then been stumped about how to review it or how to explain it to others?

Rob Doyle’s new “novel” — I use the term lightly because I’m not sure if this is a novel or a memoir or reportage or a series of essays because it certainly feels like all of these things in places — is just like that.

I don’t know how to articulate what Threshold is about. There’s no plot, there are few characters and next to no dialogue. It’s probably best described as a novel of ideas.

I enjoyed reading it and I came away from it feeling as if my grey matter had been deeply stimulated because it got me thinking about all kinds of things, specifically how humans use art, literature, music, drugs and travel to escape themselves, to gain new experiences and to make sense of the world around them.

An ageing narrator

The book is narrated by someone called Rob, who may or may not be the actual author. He’s writing as a middle-aged Irishman looking back on his life, and each self-contained chapter explains a specific incident or time in his 20s and 30s framed around a certain issue.

For example, in the opening chapter headed Mushroom, Rob tells us about his use of magic mushrooms, collected in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where they grow wild, to get high; in Mediterranean, we follow him on his trip to the small Catalan beach town of Blanes to follow in the footsteps of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who lived and worked there for a large part of his life until his death in 2003; and in Nightclub he tells us about living in Berlin and being immersed in the hardcore techno club scene.

Sandwiched between each chapter is a one-page letter (or email) in which Rob writes to an unnamed friend, sharing an insight (usually about the writing process) or aphorism.

For as long as you are working, you have a why: when you reach the end of a project, the why dissolves. You are left alone with yourself, in all the pain from which the work had offered relief. But there is another perspective, more comforting and no less valid: with the completion of every book, it gets easier to disappear.

There’s no narrative arc because the stories aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. And yet, for all its breaking of normal “writerly” conventions, this is an imminently readable book. The prose is silky smooth, the voice understated. Occasionally it is shocking (there are many references to sex and drug use, for instance), but on the whole, I found myself swept up in the tales (and the ideas and the facts) revealed here.

It is deeply philosophical and introspective, but the mood is lightened by a playful sense of humour running throughout, although it’s not immediately obvious. You have to read closely to spot the clever “in” jokes and the sly little digs. In a book that is obsessed with recounting dreams, for instance, I couldn’t help but laugh at this line from Henry James, tucked away on page 189, that says: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”

Nor could I withhold my chuckles when I came across this paragraph about suicide:

There was only one way I would have the balls to kill myself and that was by shooting myself in the skull. That seemed by far the best way of doing it: quick, loud, bloody and — hopefully — painless. All of this was fanciful, though. I could not shoot my skull because I didn’t live in a country where I could acquire a gun. The only country I knew where I’d be able to buy a gun was America, and I could never live there again: I would rather kill myself.

One man’s search for meaning

In essence, Threshold is one man’s search for meaning in a world often devoid of meaning. It’s a very male book, by which I mean it’s clear that Rob navigates a world that is made for him (without fear of falling pregnant, for instance, or being taken advantage of when drunk or high) and it’s sometimes hard to accept that his lack of clear direction in his life is anything other than his own making.

I loved the journey it took me on, including the meta aspects of it, and the cleverness of the writing and the ideas and philosophies presented. It’s a book to mull over, chew on, discuss with others. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most engaging. Make of that what you will.

Threshold has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I still don’t know how to articulate what it is about.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut: A lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

This is my 1st book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 10th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I was actually sent this book unsolicited by the Australian publisher last year not long after I posted my review of Doyle’s debut novel.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

It’s that time of the year again. The shortlist for The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award has been announced.

No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist of five titles is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week and the winner of the €15,000 prize is named on the opening night of the festival.

Longtime readers of my blog will know that this is one of my favourite literary awards, which I have been following for many years now. I usually try to read all the books on the shortlist. In doing so, I have been introduced to some excellent Irish fiction, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey, an incredibly under-rated novel (which I highly recommend you read, especially if you are in any way intrigued by James Joyce’s Ulysses) and last year’s superb winner Girl by Edna O’Brien.

Below is this year’s shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. 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.

The five shortlisted novels are:

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

When Alannah was twenty-three, she met a man who was older than her – a married man – and fell in love. Things happened suddenly. They met in April, in the first bit of mild weather; and in August, they went to stay in rural Ireland, overseen by the cottage’s landlady. Six years later, when Alannah is newly married to another man, she sees the landlady from afar. Memories of those days spent in bliss, then torture, return to her. And the realisation that she has been waiting – all this time – to be rediscovered.

‘Threshold’ by Rob Doyle

Rob has spent most of his confusing adult life wandering, writing, and imbibing literature and narcotics in equally vast doses. Now, stranded between reckless youth and middle age, between exaltation and despair, his travels have acquired a de facto purpose: the immemorial quest for transcendent meaning. On a lurid pilgrimage for cheap thrills and universal truth, Doyle’s narrator takes us from the menacing peripheries of Paris to the drug-fuelled clubland of Berlin, from art festivals to sun-kissed islands, through metaphysical awakenings in Asia and the brink of destruction in Europe, into the shattering revelations brought on by the psychedelic DMT.

‘A Sabbatical in Leipzig’ by Adrian Duncan

A retired Irish engineer living alone in Bilbao reflects on his life, work, homes and relationships, structuring his thoughts around key pieces of art and music, focusing particularly on a five-year period of prolonged mental agitation spent with his partner in Leipzig.

‘Words to Shape my Name’ by Laura McKenna

In a London graveyard in 1857, Harriet Small is approached by a stranger, an unwanted intruder who insists that she hear him out . . . in the will of a woman she only barely remembers, Harriet has been left an unusual collection of papers: her father’s True Narrative of his life after escaping slavery and his journey into the heart of revolutionary Ireland.

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

“My name is Bina and I’m a very busy woman. That’s Bye-na, not Beena. I don’t know who Beena is but I expect she’s having a happy life. I don’t know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you’ve come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse. I’m here to warn you . . .” So begins this ‘novel in warnings’ – an unforgettable tour de force in the voice of an ordinary-extraordinary woman who has simply had enough.

The winner will be announced on 2 June.

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. 

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award is one of my favourite awards. I have been following it for several years now and it has introduced me to some very good Irish fiction indeed, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey and  My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Typically, the way the prize works is that no longlist is announced. Instead, a shortlist of five titles is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week and the winner of the prize is named on the opening night of the festival. This year, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Writers’ Week has been cancelled and I was beginning to think the prize may be cancelled, too.

But then I discovered this article via Google, so I’m delighted to share the shortlist with you here. (The official website, which I’ve been checking on an almost daily basis for news of the prize, has also been updated, so you can read the official announcement here.)

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. 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.

The five shortlisted novels are:

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

“It’s late one night at the Spanish port of Algeciras and two fading Irish gangsters are waiting on the boat from Tangier. A lover has been lost, a daughter has gone missing, their world has come asunder — can it be put together again?”

The River Capture by Mary Costello

“Luke O’Brien has left Dublin to live a quiet life on his family land on the bend of the River Sullane. Alone in his big house, he longs for a return to his family’s heyday and turns to books for solace. One morning a young woman arrives at his door and enters his life with profound consequences. Her presence presents him and his family with an almost impossible dilemma. The River Capture tells of one man’s descent into near madness, and the possibility of rescue. This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art.”

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

“Leonard and Hungry Paul  is the story of two friends who ordinarily would remain uncelebrated. It finds a value and specialness in them that is not immediately apparent and prompts the idea that maybe we could learn from the people that we overlook in life. Leonard and Hungry Paul change the world differently to the rest of us: we try and change it by effort and force; they change it by discovering the small things they can do well and offering them to others.”

Girl by Edna O’Brien

“Captured, abducted and married into Boko Haram, the narrator of this story witnesses and suffers the horrors of a community of men governed by a brutal code of violence. Barely more than a girl herself, she must soon learn how to survive as a woman with a child of her own. Just as the world around her seems entirely consumed by madness, bound for hell, she is offered an escape of sorts – but only into another landscape of trials and terrors amidst the unforgiving wilds of northeastern Nigeria, through the forest and beyond; a place where her traumas are met with the blinkered judgement of a society in denial.”

(Lisa Hill has reviewed it here)

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

“1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.”

The winner of the €15,000 prize will be announced on 27 May. 

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. 

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, 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!

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

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?