From Lahore to Castlebar: The International Dublin Literary Award Shortlist

Ten novels from a wide-ranging group of authors have just been announced on the shortlist for the International Dublin Literary Award. Marjorie Brennan assesses the books in the running for the €100,000 prize.

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

Released in quick succession, Conversation with Friends and its follow-up, Normal People, have sent Mayo’s Sally Rooney from rising star to literary supernova in the space of two years. Conversations with Friends follows the adventures of young aspiring writer Frances as she navigates an affair with a married man and her shifting relationship with best friend Bobbi.

Rooney’s coolly intelligent prose and acutely observed characterisation and dialogue has inspired overwhelmingly positive reviews and attracted a fervent fanbase. Rooney has swept all before her in terms of plaudits and prizes, so it would be no surprise if she added this award to the trophy cabinet.

Sally Rooney. Picture: Johnny Davies.

Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty

While Rooney’s protagonists are in the spring of their lives, Bernard MacLaverty’s novel features two people in the twilight of theirs. This tender and poignant portrait of a couple facing more than one moment of reckoning on a city break shows how marriage can be as lonely as it is companionable. As the Belfast-born writer expertly switches between the perspectives of Gerry and Stella, we divine their diverging hopes and expectations and look back on the highs and lows of their relationship. All the while, Stella seeks succour from her faith while Gerry finds it at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

Bernard McLaverty. Picture: Dave Meehan.

History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund

Fridlund expertly captures teenage ennui and the bleakness and beauty of her native Minnesota in this coming-of-age story. Linda (aka Mattie) has become used to navigating her own way through life, roaming friendless between the town where she goes to school and the forest where she lives in a ramshackle cabin with her parents.

But the big bad wolf that lies in wait for this Little Red Riding Hood is not as obvious as we think, and when a couple and child move in across the nearby lake, Linda is drawn into a web of lies and delusion, with tragic consequences.Just like its protagonist, there’s something unquantifiable and enigmatic about this book that suggests a possible dark horse appearance in the winners enclosure.

Emily Fridlund.

Idaho, Emily Ruskovich

Similar themes are explored in Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho, where woods are also used to ominous and atmospheric effect and dark events haunt a family. With her husband Wade’s memory disintegrating, Ann tries to uncover the truth of what happened to his first wife and their daughters. In the process, Ruskovich employs a skilful sense of place to eloquently convey the comfort that nature can provide, and keeps the reader turning the pages as she explores philosophical questions such as how we go on living in the face of unimaginable grief.

Emily Ruskovich.

Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor

McGregor won the International Dublin Literary Award with his novel Even the Dogs in 2012. Reservoir 13 begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl and the unluckiest number continues to hover ominously as each of the 13 chapters covers a year in the life of an unnamed village and its residents.

An omniscient narrator recounts the ordinary and profound events of life, and the rituals of religion and nature that mark the unrelenting march of time. McGregor’s novel is a hypnotic meditation on the natural world, the ties of community and family and the mundanity of violence and evil. Not one for people who like a neat ending though. An inventive but accessible and compelling read, Reservoir 13 was a big hit with critics and readers alike but the fact McGregor is a previous winner may count against him.

Jon McGregor.

Lincoln in the Bardo. George Saunders

This challenging and structurally inventive debut novel from Saunders, previously acclaimed for his short stories, has already garnered the 2017 Man Booker Prize for fiction. The bardo of the title refers to the transitional state between death and rebirth that is a tenet of Buddhism. On the surface, the Lincoln in question is Willie, son of Abraham, who died aged 11 from typhoid.

However, his father is in his own kind of limbo, as Civil War rages and he comes to terms with his son’s death. Most of the book takes place over one night, in the graveyard where Willie has been laid to rest. The story is conveyed by some of the graveyard’s resident souls, and Lincoln himself, and is blended with factual and fictional events. The book has been compared to the classic Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain in its tone and setting and like that work, there is humour and lightness along with its emotional heft.

George Saunders.

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

The winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, this is an ambitious retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone for our turbulent times. The titular heroine of Sophocles’ story buries her dead brother against the will of the King of Thebes, whose refusal to grant funeral rites angers the gods, setting in train a catastrophic series of events.

Here, Antigone is replaced with Aneeka, a young Muslim woman whose twin brother follows the jihadi path of their father, while she becomes romantically involved with the son of a Muslim politician. It may have begun its life as a play but the book is cinematic in its rendering. Shamsie’s effortless prose and skilful plotting keeps the reader hooked and the final heartbreaking page lingers long in the memory.

Kamila Shamsie.

A Boy in Winter, Rachel Seiffert

Set in a Ukrainian town in 1941, weeks after the Germans invade, it is hard to read this book and not think of the current political turbulence in Europe and the attendant, frightening, attempts to rewrite history. Seiffert is an English author whose grandfather was a doctor in the Waffen SS and grandmother a Nazi Party member, and she writes vividly and authoritatively of the panic and disorientation that ensues when the SS arrives and begins to round up Jews in the area.

The boy of the title is 13-year-old Yankel who flees with his youngest brother, Momik, and as they prevail on the mercy of others, Seiffert invites the reader to wonder how they would act in such circumstances.

Rachel Seiffert

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Like Seiffert, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid takes the reader on a journey into a place convulsed by political turmoil. In a time of profound uncertainty, with their country on the brink of civil war, lovers Nadia and Saeed plot their escape from an unnamed city. When a magical occurrence gives them a chance of refuge, other threats to their relationship come to the surface.

Exit West is another timely exploration of displacement, migration and what risks we are prepared to take to find our place in the world. This had a long list of nominating libraries throwing their weight behind it, a factor that could hold sway in the final decision.

Mohsin Hamid.

Compass, Mathias Énard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell)

Musicologist Franz Ritter spends a restless night in his Viennese home in a kind of fever dream, remembering his travels in the Middle East and his lost love. The only novel in translation on the list, the stream-of- consciousness style is underpinned by Énard’s passionate evocations of the power of learning. When the dawn breaks for Ritter, and the reader, there is the sense of having learned something invaluable.

Mathias Enard.

The International Dublin Literary Award award is sponsored by Dublin City Council and managed by Dublin City Libraries. This year’s award covers books published in 2017. The judging panel will select a winner, to be announced on June 12

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