Contemporary Fiction Recs, Part 2
1. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney
New release alert! Sally Rooney’s much-anticipated third book just hit the market a few weeks ago and has proven to be an instant best-seller around the world. This erudite 30-year-old writer took her evocative title from a 1788 Friedrich Schiller (best known for “Ode to Joy”) poem, reflective of the larger social questions the narrative poses. Largely an epistolary novel interspersed with Rooney’s sharp, witty narrative, the plot follows two best friends, Eileen and Alice, as they navigate both their own friendship and romantic relationships as they enter their 30s. Set in both Dublin and a small, oceanside Irish town, Rooney criticizes class hang ups and late capitalism in Ireland all while asking the question: is it moral for one’s focus to be on what’s beautiful in life instead of what’s wrong? But don’t expect Rooney to hand over the answers—instead you’re given a tenderly wrought story of complex connections that lets each reader experience their own answers as they’re drawn through. (Note: this one comes highly recommended by our Office Manager, Devon, but you can read a more critical review of the book here.)
2. This Must Be the Place, Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 book, Hamnet, was considered one of the best books of its year (by more or less every literary outlet,) but as it was set in England instead of Ireland, we’re here with another one of this beloved Irish author’s works. This Must Be the Place is instead set in rural Donegal and is considered to be O’Farrell’s “breakout book” that placed her on the contemporary literary map. The novel follows two Americans building quiet lives (mildly in hiding) for themselves in the Irish countryside—former linguistics professor Daniel and former (famous) actress Claudette. Through multiple, time-hopping (but easy to follow,) and dynamic storylines, the reader is treated to a tantalizingly slow reveal of the character’s inner conflicts and pasts as they hurtle toward what may or may not be predetermined fates. Take it from NPR’s Heller McAlpin: O’Farrell’s “fascinated by women who refuse to conform, by the secrets withheld even from our nearest and dearest, and by the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of life, the way a chance encounter can change everything and come to feel inevitable.” As the joy is in the discovery here, we won’t say anymore!
3. The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Tóibín
Best known in the U.S. for his 2015 book, Brooklyn, (and the award-winning movie adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan) about an young, female Irish immigrant in New York in the early 1950s, Tóibín’s body of work has several overarching themes: the Irish identity versus personal identity, the creative process, and the self when confronted with loss. The Blackwater Lightship, one of his 3 “Wexford” novels, is no exception, inspired by the death of Tóibín’s own father and his own childhood home of Enniscorthy. Set in Ireland in the trouble-filled 1990s, this is a family story—of family lost, family found, and family chosen—concentrating on three generations of estranged women confronting the untimely, upcoming death of a beloved brother, son, and grandson. With a light hand and sparse prose, the narrative is an exploration into forgiveness, memory, and the seeming impossibility of a future beyond loss, backdropped by the Irish sea. The novel was short-listed for The Man Booker Prize in 2014 and adapted by Hallmark into a made-for-TV movie of the same name (though possibly not set in Ireland as it’s starring, of all people, Dianne Wiest and Angela Lansbury.) While we’d recommend the book, jury’s out on the movie version.
4. Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan
While Dolan’s novel may be set in Hong Kong, it’s still a definitively Irish novel. Narrator Ava, a Dublin-born ex-pat, is in her early 20s, directionless and in China teaching English to the children of rich natives. When she meets English Julian, a well-off and highly educated banker, she embarks on a strange and ill-defined relationship that will change the way she sees herself and the world around her. Then…enter Edith (Hong Kong born and bred,) and things get even more complicated. Similar to Rooney’s exploration of personal relationships as a gateway to larger, societal issues, Ava’s experiences are given to us as a representation of the worldwide experience of the Irish diaspora and the perception of the Irish identity outside of Ireland. Deftly avoiding love-triangle tropes with her equally deadpan and witty prose, this is Dolan’s debut novel. (Note: this is another personal recommendation from Devon, but the reviews have been divisively both for and against—it’s an either you love it or hate it kind of book! But we’re a fan of Vogue’s summation: “This debut novel…is half Sally Rooney love triangle, half glitzy Crazy Rich Asians high living—and guaranteed to please.”)
5. Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan
Winner of An Post Irish Book Award Novel of the Year in 2020 and set in Tipperary in the 1970s, the story opens upon Paddy and Kit Gladney’s discovery that their 20-year-old daughter Moll has disappeared with a suitcase and without a trace. Five years pass in a blink, and just when the couple is coming to terms with their loss, Moll returns with as little an explanation as she left with. This family story of seclusion, secrecy, and class hierarchies within Irish villages has an idyllic, almost hermetic backdrop that belies the tumultuous country it resides it, instead concentrating on the turmoil within his character’s hearts and relationships. Donal has been twice long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, but many reviewers claim that this, his sixth book, is his best to date. (Here’s a more in-depth review to peruse!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last Modern Ireland post, all about Irish language in Irish schools, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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