Debut novelist Ryan spinning yarns from the heart

After Kevin Barry’s win last year, could Dónal Ryan land the IMPAC prize for Ireland again? Orlagh Ní Arrachtáin looks at the contenders.

 Donal Ryan: His debut novel The Spinning Heart charts the decline of an Irish village during the 'Celtic Tiger' years and has now made the shortlist for the IMPAC Award.

THERE are now only ten novelists remaining in contention for the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. This year’s shortlist includes two Irish novels: Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart and David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam.

The result of a collaboration between over 100 libraries worldwide, the IMPAC award is unique in the literary world, not only for its democratic nomination process but also for its generous prize fund. Last year the €100,000 award was won by Irish novelist Kevin Barry for his debut novel City of Bohane.

The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, is one of five translations to make this year’s shortlist. Set in rural Wales, it charts the story of a displaced Dutch woman struggling with life and against nature itself. Attempting to impress some form of order on a chaotic garden, Bakker’s protagonist, an Emily Dickinson scholar, is interrupted by frequent guests, some invited and others less than welcome.

Bakker is the only author on the shortlist to have previously won the IMPAC award — that was in 2010 with his debut novel The Twin. Also translated by Colmer, his was the third debut novel in a row to win.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Krester shares its title and perhaps elements of its theme with a poem by American poet Elizabeth Bishop. De Krester is no stranger to shortlists and plaudits, having already won the 2013 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for this, the Sri Lankan-born, Australian-based writer’s fourth novel. Questions of Travel deals with the multi-faceted concepts of home and self-identity.

Set in a difficult and controversial time, Absolution by American writer Patrick Flannery book-ends the first free elections of South Africa, held in 1994. Concerned with the many complex issues of the recent past, Flannery maps the various realities of an embryonic free state. He places writers in the role of protagonists, questioning the power or lack thereof of the written word and their role in an emergent society.

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett, A Death in the Family is the first of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book Min Kamp (My Struggle) series to be translated into English. Touted as more memoir than fiction, A Death in the Family is a gritty and at times meticulous recount of the writer’s family life, detailing events and happenings that for many would be consigned to the world of the mundane. Interspersed with musings on the nature of reminiscence and remembering, Knausgaard challenges the reader to engage with his recollections regardless of how reliable they may prove to be.

Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye won the French Literary Prize the Prix Goncourt for its much-lauded author when it was printed in 2009. Translated from French by John Fletcher, Three Strong Women is composed of three narratives that migrate between France and Senegal. It charts the stories of three women who struggle to maintain their strength when subjected to familial demands forcing them to draw on their finite stores of inner strength.

Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century, translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, is the first of Neuman’s four novels to be translated into English. Argentina-born Neumann has set this novel in 19th century Germany. Composed of five parts, it follows Hans, who happens upon the town of Wandernburg en route elsewhere. As Hans becomes entranced with and somewhat entrapped by the town and its inhabitants, Neumann manages to interweave timely philosophical questions and reflections into the fabric of his narrative.

The Light of Amsterdam is Northern Irish writer David Park’s eighth novel. It follows the path of three sets of people — a divorcée, a single mother and a middle-aged couple visiting Amsterdam for different reasons. Grounding itself firmly in the nascent 21st century, the novel opens at the funeral of George Best and closes at a Bob Dylan concert.

The Spinning Heart by Dónal Ryan is the other novel by an Irish writer to be shortlisted. Using the voices of 21 characters, this debut novel charts the distress and ensuing demise of an Irish village and its inhabitants. Recipient of the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, The Spinning Heart lends a voice to those less heard from in modern Ireland. Delicately threading their lives together, Ryan’s narrative draws the reader into their small yet absolute world.

Twan Eng Tan’s second novel The Garden of Evening Mists was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. The writer removes his main character from the life of her late middle age and repositions her as the survivor of a Japanese war camp in her homeland of Malaya after World War Two. Here, amid the threat of guerrilla warfare, and in an attempt to create a memorial for her sister, she inadvertently becomes apprenticed to the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

The Sound of Things Falling is Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s third novel and is translated from Spanish by Anne McLean. Set in 1980s Bogotá amid the chaotic reign of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, with reminiscences extending back to the 1960s, the novel investigates the extensive repercussions of violent acts whilst exploring the association between trauma and memory.

In contrast with other prizes, the IMPAC award features debut novels and little-known works in translation alongside the works of established authors. Reducing the long list of 152 nominated novels to the final 10 is a remarkable achievement. However, the panel of five judges and a non-voting chair must now deliberate on their final choice, to be announced in June.



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