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Damian Smyth selects the best new books to be locked up with

Monday 6th April 2020 at 3pm 0 Comments

Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much. Image: Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much.

In the first of two special blogs, published this week and next, Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, selects the best new books to escape into when the real world gets too much.

IT WAS the great Dickinson - Emily, not David - who said "There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away".

So, the COVID-19, Coronavirus, CR9 crisis (oops, that’s Ronaldo), gives us a chance to test that theory, when we’re not even allowed out to the yard.

Glenn Patterson is a civic lodestar in his native city, but mostly he is one of the handful of important writers this island has produced in 30 years. His eleventh novel is bidding to be one of his best. In Where Are We Now? (Apollo £18.99), a measured work with all his gifts for identifying vulnerability matured and seasoned, Herbie is a man suddenly adrift in Belfast, reflecting on values, identity, purpose (notably he works with public records), at the point his relationship and family dissolve and he understands failure. Traumatic, yes, but not melodramatic – Herbie flakes from the edges in, but not so you’d notice, a disjoint credibly and beautifully realised. This against Patterson’s obsessive backdrop, economically drawn, of a society still shaken by violence, piecing together a benevolent aftermath, getting used to civilities other places take for granted.

Tyrone’s-own Michelle Gallen’s first novel Big Girl, Small Town (John Murray £14.99), also set in a contemporary Northern Ireland, shows a confident stylist matching a storyteller’s enthusiasm. It’s grim alright and it’s traumatised, but it’s resilient, a bit racy and more than a bit brilliant. Her humour – often raucous, sometimes dark – introduces in Majella (who works in a chippy called A Salt and Battered) a memorable hero, outside the Belfast-centred fiction of much work, but joining Anna Burns’s Middle Sister as a spirit guide for our time.

Journalist Malachi O’Doherty – broadcaster, cycliste, photographer, memoirist, Arts
Council Major Artist, is now novelist. Terry Brankin Has A Gun (Merrion £14.99) has proved a winning début as a throttling thriller set in post-conflict Belfast, with the eponymous protagonist seeking to keep the dust of his (fairly brutal) Provo past well shaken off his slick solicitor present. When a Cold Case cop comes calling, Terry finds himself pulled back in among sinister but plausibly-persuasive characters northern readers will enjoy trying to identify from real life politics and others will simply enjoy.

When people look back at the fiction of this last ten years in Ireland north and south, I’ll wager Sheena Wilkinson’s name will strongly feature. Joining Name Upon Name (2015), during the Easter Rising, and Star By Star (2018) with suffragism and revolution at the end of the Great War, is Hope Against Hope (Little Island £7.99). Set in a women’s hostel in a newly-partitioned island, Wilkinson again presents motivated believable female characters in entirely convincing historical conditions, taking control of their own lives and impacting on others’. The writer is an Arts Council Major Artist and has a formidable narrative gift and an acute sense of historical justice.

How lucky we are. Sinéad Morrissey’s Found Architecture (Carcanet £14.99) gathers almost a hundred poems from her six collections, including ‘Through The Square Window’, which won the National Poetry Competition in 2007, and items from her 2013 TS Eliot Prize-winning collection Parallax and her 2017 Forward Prize-winning On Balance – and she isn’t yet 50. Stunning, accessible poems on her Communist family, The Clangers, outdoor exercise, women air pioneers and That Big Ship That Sank.

“My gun was clenched in his hand. His hoodie, which I had been wearing over my pyjamas, lay crumpled on the floor, spattered with blood that was probably mine.” Thus Arts Council ACES writer Kelly Creighton’s PSNI detective Harry Sloane reveals one of several dark secrets in The Sleeping Season (Friday Press £8.99), as she (oh yes) and buddy DI Diane Linskey track a missing 4-year-old in a Belfast packed with known locations. There are vivid character studies of people under pressure – addiction, disease, suspicion, debility, domestic abuse, as well as the old companions of fear, loathing and greed of all kinds. This satisfying thriller from the police perspective is also very much the story of a 21st-century woman in a male profession within an aggressive male country. This is Book One of a series. Good work, detective.

Editors Ruth Carr’s and Natasha Cuddington’s anthology Her Other Language: Northern Irish Women Writers Address Domestic Violence and Abuse (Arlen £10.00) brings together stories, extracts, drama, reportage and poems, tough at times but always important, and, in the end, affirmative, wry and courageous, as well as containing writing of a frighteningly high standard.

Alice Lyons’s showstopping Oona (Lilliput £12.00) is a novel without the letter ‘O’ – a feat achieved with such discretion it’s hardly noticed, though the absence betokens loss, neglect, frustration and disappearance. That’s to say nothing about this début novel’s intensely-written, originally-cast emotional journey from suburban New Jersey to Dublin to Leitrim, escaping secrets and death as the Celtic Tiger keels over.

The first Children’s Writing Fellow for NI, Myra Zepf, published the first verse-novel in Irish early this year. Shortlisted for the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Awards, Nóinín (Cois Life £11.00) is a shy teenager who meets a young man online and disappears – cheerio De Valera’s Ireland, alright. It’s about “online safety versus freedom, the protective power of scepticism, the question of who to trust and our culture of victim-blaming,” says Zepf. That young people are spending their own cash buying it tells you it’s a cracking story also.

Part two of Books for the Lockdown will be published next Monday, 13 April 2020.

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