Ten of the best in line for a Dublin Literary Award

The Dublin Literary Award with a prize of €100k is one of the biggest in the business. Alan O’Riordan casts his eye over the nominees.

Baba Dunja’s Last Love; Alina Bronsky

Bronsky’s narrator is a memorably redoubtable survivor. Her wit and philosophy, her hard-won wisdom, her awareness of the limitations of her age, how out of kilter she is with the modern world – all this would make her a heroine worth reading in any contemporary novel.

That she stubbornly continues to live in the Chernobyl exclusion zone adds to her likability.

A strange intrusion has deadly results, but Bronsky ensures the demands of plot never jar with his sharp character study.

The Transmigration of Bodies; Yuri Herrera

Herrera’s brief novel is a punch in the guts, a colourful mixture of genres that proceeds in a filmic quality through a series of dramatic short scenes.

The setting is an unnamed city in Mexico, where seedy life continues for the criminal classes despite a deadly mosquito-borne plague ravaging the population.

It’s detective noir meets post-apocalyptic sci-fi – a fitting combination of the strange times we live in.

The Unseen; Roy Jacobson

In prose as spare and austere as the lives he describes, Jacobson brings us to a small, windswept Norwegian island where the Barroys eek out a living from land and sea, each as unforgiving as the other, in its way.

But the elements can be generous too – there is the warm sun of summer, the comfort of an eiderdown, the satisfaction of a fishing expedition, or building project.

Jacobson follows the family at the start of the 20th century, as a way of life so carefully crafted is about to disappear forever. A fine novel, atmospherically translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw.

Human Acts; Han Kang

When South Korea’s military dictator Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979, it unleashed a period of unrest and violence that is hard to equate with the country as we know it today.

Kang’s novel revisits those days of martial law, internment and torture in a powerful, episodic work that gives voice, sequentially, to victims and survivors of the Gwangju uprising, during which hundreds of people died.

Kang’s approach draws the reader close to personal experiences behind the historical events, without ever losing a sense of their wider political dimension.

Solar Bones; Mike McCormack

If the use and overuse of the full stop is one of Eimear McBride’s principal stylistic devices, McCormack shuns them entirely in his post-Celtic Tiger story.

If that sounds a daunting, Proustian challenge, the reader need fear not: McCormack’s prose flows easily and there are plenty of indentations and short paragraphs.

Indeed, it is not clear what function is served by the device, other than as a technical challenge for the writer, which he rises to with great skill.

Neither is it clear what function is served by McCormack’s other writerly invention: our narrator, Marcus Conway, an engineer, is dead, and retelling the events leading to his passing.

Yet, the book is at its best when we find Conway at the centre of local life: wrangling with politicians, and residents, recounting the turbulence of his marriage, and the increasing tenuousness of his relations with his children as they get older.

An outbreak of cryptosporidiosis and a flaw in the foundations of a new local school allow Conway to become exemplar: a principled rationalist in country where political fudges are literally poisonous. McCormack’s style allows dramatic moments of conflict an immediacy full of closely observed detail, but it also permits plot lines to fizzle.

The Lesser Bohemians; Eimear McBride

McBride burnished her modernist credentials in her first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and once again here, she makes language strain at its own limits as she asks it to do the hard work of describing sex in a meaningful, idiosyncratic and uncliched way.

We follow her 18-year-old protagonist to London, and the pleasure and pain of her sexual awakening.

It is still a comparatively unexplored subject in literature, but McBride does not stop there, straying into much darker territory of abuse and incest.

Her style creates substance around this, her short sentences jolt and jar; the bursts of words, the strange formulations get as close as possible to what is often unspoken.

Distant Light; Antonio Moresco

“I have come here to disappear,” says the unnamed narrator in Moresco’s slight ghost story. The here is a rural spot in the mountains, somewhere in Italy.

“Sometimes I stop and I talk to the animals,” he tells us. The result, aiming at a kind of mysticism, is rendered in pedantic banality in Richard Dixon’s translation.

“But why are you so angry?” he asks a wasp. All this is mercifully interrupted by the appearance of the titular light, and a tentative friendship between the man in the woods and a mysterious boy who lives, or seems to live, alone there.

Ladivine; Marie Ndiaye

Ndiaye’s work stretches across many years, and, indeed, generations. There is an original sin here – the rejection by Malinka of her mother, Ladivine, an immigrant to France, who works as a housekeeper.

Malinka, pale enough to pass for white, reinvents herself as Clarisse Riviere, but in Ndiaye’s acute portrait of a flawed human, remains a shallow person, self-stunted and unable to transcend her own lie.

Her unease is passed to her daughter, as, on a disastrous family trip to an unnamed tropical country, clearly echoing the family’s origins, the book takes a turn towards the unsettling and uncanny.

Dislocation, violence and loss jolt the reader’s expectations. A sophisticated, allusive work.

My Name is Lucy Barton; Elizabeth Strout

Strout’s is a story of identity, origins and their inescapability, despite what we might make of ourselves.

Lucy is an adopted New Yorker, self-actualised in the city. She’s come a long way from her emotionally, culturally and economically deprived upbringing in a one-horse Illinois town.

Now, though, confined to hospital by an illness, she welcomes her mother, estranged for years, back into her new life during an extended bedside visit. Their past is a troubled one, but there is love between them.

Strout’s is a nuanced and wise depiction of human relationships in all their complexity, and of memory in all its strangeness and unreliability.

The Woman Next Door; Yewande Omotoso

The plot that serves to reveal the characters in the South African-based author’s book feels contrived: full of wills, accidents, and paintings in attics.

Marion and Hortensia are two retired women, living in an affluent suburb of Cape Town.

Their mutual hatred and rivalry is cemented during residents’ meetings, until the aforementioned accident, and some further unlikely twists, draw them together.

Omotoso skilfully switches across the years, filling in the women’s past relationships. Yet, the clash of characters that should be at the heart of the book seems neglected.

The winner of the €100,000 prize for the Dublin Literary Award will be announced on June 13.


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