Top 10 Irish Books of 2021

As we get ready to ring out 2021 and set our sights on 2022, there’s no better time to review what has been a very exciting year for Irish literature. These ten highly acclaimed novels will make the perfect stocking filler for the book lover in your life.

Actress

From Anne Enright, the author of such acclaimed novels as The Gathering and The Last Waltz, comes the story of a mother locked in a destructive love for fame, and the daughter who witnesses it. During her career as an actress Katharine O’Dell made it to the London West End, Broadway, and even the glittering lights of Hollywood. Her daughter Norah grew up watching from the wings. But, when Katherine begins to age and lose her grasp on the glimmer of stardom, she lashes out in unexpected and disturbing ways.

Aisling and the City

One of the most endearing Irish heroines of the last decade, Aisling, a small town girl from Ballygobard, returns to our book shops with her sights set on the Big Apple. After following the ups and downs of her career, social life, and romances over three books, readers will join Aisling in New York City as she embarks on a dazzling new chapter of opportunity. However, she may find that her life in Ireland, and especially Ballygobard, won’t be easy to shake off.

A team effort by Emer Mc Lysaght and Sarah Breen, Aisling in the City is a heartwarming comedy about figuring out what you really want from life.

Beautiful World Where Are You?

Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney released her third novel this year after the breakout success of her first two books, Conversations with Friends, and Normal People. She deftly weaves the narrative of four characters and the state of their interlocking relationships as they reach the ends of their young adulthood and confront the state of their lives. Rooney’s celebrated stripped-back style is in evidence throughout Beautiful World Where Are You?, a novel which explores the political, social, and emotional anxieties that come with maturing in the 21st century. 

The Magician

By the author of the internationally best-selling Brooklyn, The Magician tells the tale of German writer and Nobel prize winner, Thomas Mann. Colm Tóibín uses the style of a fictionalised biography to explore one of the most interesting literary figures of 20th century Europe, a writer marked by two world wars and the turbulent politics of his home country. Tóibín’s imaginative retelling of Mann’s life explores the author’s development as a man who struggles to fight his mounting disillusionment with the world around him. Ultimately, The Magician is a moving and insightful meditation on the clash of ideals and reality.

Acts of Desperation 

The debut novel by young rising Irish talent, Megan Nolan, Acts of Desperation is the biting and often disturbing story of one incredibly toxic relationship. When our unnamed protagonist embarks on a romance with the older half-Danish Ciarán, a poet, the warning signs start blaring immediately. And yet, the protagonist not only stays locked in this dysfunctional twosome, she begins to embrace it. Acts of Desperation skilfully takes its readers into the mind of its central character, allowing them to understand how a person lets themselves be misused, and what pushes them to desire it.

Dinner Party

With its full title being Dinner Party: a Tragedy, this latest offering from Sarah Gilmartin apparently tells you what to expect. It is therefore a real pleasure when the author manages to give an engrossing new take on a storyline that seems to have been done to death: dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships. Through her protagonist, Kate, Gilmartin brings to life a thoughtful and observant history of one family’s domestic tragedy.

A Crooked Tree

This debut novel by Una Mannion, set in 1980s rural Pennsylvania, combines a coming-of-age plot with the sensibilities of a crime thriller. It follows the Gallaghers, an Irish-American family recently fractured by the death of their father. The cracks widen when a punishment gone wrong leaves twelve year old Ellen stranded on the side of the road, miles from home, and incredibly vulnerable. What happens to Ellen out on the roadside, and its aftermath, are observed through the perspective of her older sister Libby, who brings the reader on an evocative trip through the last Summer of her childhood.

The Pawn-Brokers Reward

This harrowing tale of The Great Famine is infused with the poetry and lyricism of its author, singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke. Narrowing the scope of the tragedy to one couple, Pádraig and Cáit ua Buachalla, and their town’s pawnbroker, Cornelius Creed. The Pawn-Brokers Reward chronicles the dynamic between the impoverished ua Buachallas, who face the workhouse, and Creed, who occupies an uncomfortable position of relative wealth. Although often dark, this novel provides a necessary and meaningful examination of a crucial period of Irish history.

Shadowplay

Another fictional biography, this sweeping novel brings to life the London years of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Focusing on the electric three-way friendship between Stoker, theatre manager Henry Irving, and actress Ellen Terry, Shadowplay juggles a star-studded cast of characters (Oscar Wilde and W.B Yeats both appear) with the slowly building tension in Stoker’s creative life. Among all this author, Joseph O’Connor, drops tantalising Easter eggs throughout the book that hint at the development of Stoker’s future gothic masterpiece.

Holding her Breath

An intelligent and clear debut, Eimear Ryan’s Holding Her Breathe charts the freshman year of Trinity Student, Beth Crowe. Beth’s grandfather was a giant in Irish poetry circles until he committed suicide via drowning off the West Cork coast, and years of following her mother and grandmother’s lead have taught her not to speak about the incident to anyone. However, Beth’s own love of swimming, as well as an inappropriate affair with a student of her grandfather’s poetry, gradually push her to ask questions about a version of events she’d accepted as fact.

Hopefully you won’t stop at just these ten books! There’s a whole world of Irish novels ready to explore, and 2022 is set to be another year of sparkling new debuts.

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Caoilfhinn Hegarty

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