My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

It’s Reading Ireland Month and in addition to posting reviews as and when I read books from my Irish Literature pile, I’ll be following Cathy at 746book’s weekly prompts to explore some past favourites.

This week it’s a Top 5 prompt and I was going to do novels, but many of my all time favourite Irish reads are nonfiction, so I’m sharing both.

week 1 Top 5

Top 5 Irish Fiction

There are more than 5 Irish novels that I have rated 5 star reads, so I’m listing the first five that come to mind, that have stayed with me, below. Click on the title to read my review. So honorable mentions to : the incredible Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns and Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, my favourite of the four novels of his I’ve read.

Best Non Fiction Read of 20201. A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – this was my One Outstanding Read of 2020.  Poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work of autofiction/essay reflects on history, motherhood, female passions and the elusiveness of time, place and identity. All this, while reading, rereading, thinking about and translating a 200 year old Irish poem she is obsessed with: “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Somehow she combines this into a fluid, mesmerising text that grabs the reader. Insists. Provokes. Opens Up. Reclaims space. Awakens. Utterly compelling.

“In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such an experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, present, always, but coded in invisible ink.”

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Literary Fiction2. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume – I read Baume’s work of nonfiction Handiwork before any of her novels; I remember looking forward to reading this, wondering what her fiction was going to be like. Having now read three of her books it is clear she has become my current favourite Irish author. Using her unique, rhythmic, contemplative style and way of creating character that is so measured and thoughtful, this novel is about a man getting himself into a state after taking on a stray dog and as it complicates his life, escaping with him on a road trip. It is exquisite, playful and surprising.

“I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.”

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist3. A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – No surprise then that her second novel is also in my Top 5, a stunning work about a young woman leaving Dublin city to return to her roots. She moves into her grandmother’s empty, neglected ‘for sale’ house, a place of temporary refuge as she deals with an aberration in her mental health.

Visual art is part of her recovery and the novel includes references to over seventy art installations that she tests herself on. Taking quiet charge of her own healing, creating daily purpose, the novel is itself the work of an artist. Brilliant.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town CWIP Prize 20204. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – this was a novel I saw being talked about on twitter and bought on a whim, in part because the setting in a fish & chip shop in Northern Ireland reminded me so much of our own funny story (linguistic challenge) in a chip shop in the seaside town of Newcastle in 2019.

Written in a phonetic vernacular that creates a harmonious rhythm, it follows a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed, 27-year-old Majella who has a list of stuff in her head she doesn’t like and has just learned her 85 year old grandmother may have been murdered. It’s entertaining, kind of sad, funny and  confrontational. Not my usuaI literary fare, but I totally loved it.

“Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.”

Hearts Furies5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – this novel was on so many reader’s best books list the year it came out, along with an intriguing premise, I was curious.

A heart and soul epic, with a little inspiration from his own life, it is about a boy coming to terms with his identity, exposing aspects of Ireland’s history, juxtaposed with that of the Netherland’s and the US, as Cyril’s life takes him to both those places.

The novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlighting struggles many encountered during those years, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection or violence.

It is a courageous attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations against our own nature, can be harmful to so many, making us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme. Thought provoking and profound.

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

Top 5 Irish Nonfiction

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds1. Handiwork by Sara Baume – the book that sparked my interest in the work of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, it’s like a notebook, not too many words on each page or chapter, sharing something of her year of sculpting birds. A place for reflections on her experience, observations and insights, connections, including memories of her father and grandfather who also worked with their hands.

Quotes from influential texts she’s known for years offer up additional wisdom as daily she repeats the same rhythm; crafting, sculpting, writing, reading.  Like a songbird, this mini book tweets its tribute to those who craft and create, following an intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

“From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.”

nature writing Wainwright prize2. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – Incredibly this book was written by a 15 year old boy with an ability beyond his years, it is a diary of observations of the natural world around him, a place that provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to the way he is in the world.

The book follows the seasons through the senses of this autistic boy, who has a passion for nature and the environment and a family in tune with he and his siblings needs. Deservedly won The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort.”

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences3. I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – known for her award winning novel Hamnet, this is O’Farrell’s memoir told through multiple intriguing encounters with death. The opening story is heart-stopping and frightening, deliberately placed to capture attention.

An interesting insight is the awareness of her fearlessness, something that a brush with death seems to bolster, that fortunately motherhood will quell.

“It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”

constellations-sinead-gleeson4. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – In her Reflections on Life, Gleeson writes essays, using parts of the body to structure the narrative, a body containing metal like constellations of stars that front each chapter.

Her essays share the struggles, shame, hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief.  They bear witness to a deteriorating mind,  experiences that seem like weakness, that have contributed to moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring others.

Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

affair with mother5. An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer – an incredible adoption memoir written by an Irish journalist now living in the US, who has an experience in her mid twenties common to many adoptees, often referred to as “coming out of the fog”, when they realise that despite a happy childhood and apparent lack of effect of the trauma of relinquishment – something isn’t quite right. It’s a crisis that often results in them seeking to understand their identity, to know who they are, not who they were raised to be.

Palmer finds and meets her birth mother in Ireland, initially it is a positive experience, but the continued shame and fear of the mother, and her insistence on their connection remaining secret, compromises the connection.

In addition to sharing her story Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, researching archives and interviewing those affected. It’s an affecting, intimate account of real lives that continue to be impacted today, a cruel legacy of church and state judging and shaming young women, punishing innocent children.

“What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.”

Next Week: My Year In Irish Lit!