Looking for some great Christmas book recommendations? With Christmas fast approaching, I have put together a small selection of recently published books guaranteed to make great gifts for family and friends. Where to start? Why not three great novels from Irish writers? Not necessarily because they’re Irish, but because they’re great: Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, Mary Costello’s Academy Street and Roddy Doyle’s extremely funny Another Two Pints. Both Nora Webster and Academy street have been shortlisted for the Eason Novel of the Year (Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2014) and the Costa Awards.
Colm Tóibín has managed to enthral us yet again with his seventh novel, Nora Webster. Set in Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in the 1960s, the novel explores the strong-willed eponymous character, Nora Webster, as she struggles to come to terms with the death of her husband, Maurice. Feeling newly exposed in the tiny community where everyone knows your business, the novel opens with Nora’s next-door neighbour commiserating with her over the hoards of well-wishers calling to her house night after night. Here’s a taster from the opening page: “You must be fed up with them,” he says. “Will they never stop coming? … I don’t know how you put up with it.” It’s clear her neighbour is waiting for a response that Nora doesn’t want to give. Her neighbour is “using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.” “They mean well,” Nora answers, “People mean well.” She catches her neighbour’s eye as she “bites her lip to keep the tears back,” and knows that, in her neighbour’s mind “she must have appeared put down, defeated.”
There’s nothing high-falutin’ about the prose here. Its plainness is beautiful, and in a less sure hand the writing could become clichéd or trite, but there’s no fear of that with Tóibín. The whole novel is told step by chronological step, from inside Nora’s head, as she deals with her grief and that of her four children. She visits her relatives, goes back to work in an office – something she thought she’d left behind for good when she married, and decides to sell the seaside house with its many happy memories.
Against this backdrop, The Troubles in Northern Ireland loom – Nora’s husband, Maurice, had been involved with the politics of Fiana Fáil and now her daughter is taking part in protests in Dublin. Nora wonders at first what Maurice would have made of it all, but as time passes she begins to forge a new life for herself, finding solace in the classical music he always found pretentious. She buys herself a record player, takes singing lessons, makes new friends and imagines a life she might have lived had things been different.
Nora Webster reminds me of Tóibín’s earlier novel, Brooklyn – the same beautifully woven story, plainness of prose, set in a similar time and told from a woman’s point of view. This new novel has confirmed for me that Colm Tóibín has a remarkable and unique ability to get right into the heart of a woman’s soul.
Another great Christmas book recommendation comes from Mary Costello, one of Ireland’s most exciting, new literary voices with her debut novel Academy Street. She also has a marvellous short story collection to her credit: The China Factory, published by Stinging Fly in 2012, and it’s from the seeds of one of those stories, You Fill Up My Senses, that Academy Street was born. It recently featured on BBC4’s Book At Bedtime. For a debut novel the book has brought stunning praise from the likes of Nobel Laureatte JM Coetzee, who wrote: “With extraordinary devotion, Mary Costello brings to life a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion,” and from Anne Enright, “Mary Costello’s writing has the kind of urgency that the great problems demand – call them themes; they are the kind of problems that make a writer.”
Covering six decades, Tess lives an unremarkable life. A shy introverted child, she grows up in the west of Ireland during the 1940s. Her mother dies suddenly and the young girl withdraws into herself. When a local girl dies, Tess stops speaking for a while. “A time will come when no-one will talk to her at all, or even look at her. She is a disappearing girl.” At 18, Tess follows one of her older sisters to New York where she is immediately absorbed into emigrant life. Hers is not the life of the American dream however. A brief fling results in pregnancy, and not bothering too much to track down the father, she raises her son alone. Tess prefers to hover in the wings, watching life instead of getting involved – at a distance to everyone around her, including her own son, who eventually drifts away from her.
Written in the third-person, but also partly in the present tense, Academy Street feels immediate and intimate. The style is spare and linear, not unlike that of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which also explores the possibilities of a new life in America, in contrast to the drudgery of life back at home in small town Ireland: “On the subway, she contemplated an alternative life back in Ireland. A pall grew at the thought of the daily mundane, the restraint, the stasis… It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited.” Tess lives a quiet life: she was able to keep her baby, she has her work, no-one questions her choices, and she has her books. But there’s also a part of her which is desperate to experience life. The overall effect leaves an enormous impression on the reader; heartbreaking, but beautiful.
Two More Pints. If you want a laugh, I’d definitely recommend this book for your Christmas stocking. Roddy Doyle does Dublin banter – or dialogue, if you prefer, brilliantly! All his novels, from The Commitments to his Booker winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha dispense with the conventional “speech marks.” Each new line of dialogue is presented with a simple dash. Two More Pints is no different – it also dispenses with setting and description.
We imagine the two male characters sitting in a Dublin pub. Married with children and grandchildren, they chew the fat, mulling over the day’s news and putting the world to rights. There are no chapter numbers or titles – just the dates of the conversations. This being Ireland of 2011-2012, they discuss the euro, the crash, the Queen’s visit, and Kate Middleton’s topless photos. Here’s the opening:
– Wha’ d’yeh make of the photographs?
– Wha’ photographs?
– Kate Middleton.
– Who’s she?
– You’re jokin’.
– I’m not.
– You have to be.
– I’m not. I lose track o’ them all.
– She’s – look it, she’s married to Prince William.
– Which one’s he?
Wonderful stuff. The fella with the baldy head never disappoints!
Look out for our Christmas book recommendations for children – coming shortly.