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These are 10 of the best Irish novels of 2023

Did your favourites make the cut?

WHAT A YEAR it has been for Irish writing.

For a small nation, we’ve long punched above our weight in the literary world, and it’s been a source of national pride that the country has birthed writers such as James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Brennan, and in contemporary times, Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín. It would take many more paragraphs to name out the living and dead Irish authors who have made a dent in the literary world.

So to see at least one author nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize this year wasn’t wholly unexpected. We’ve been here many times before: previous Irish winners in the past few decades include Anne Enright (for the Gathering in 2007) and John Banville (for The Sea in 2005).

But 2023 was extra special, as in the Booker longlist we had four Irish authors named, making up almost a third of the list. Together, Paul Lynch, Sebastian Barry, Paul Murray and Elaine Feeney showed that Irish writers are among the world’s best, and that our fiction can speak to the concerns of our country today and to the state of the world at large.

So if we’re looking at the best Irish fiction of 2023, we have to start there, and with the eventual Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song by Paul Lynch.

The timing of Lynch’s win was heavily remarked on because Prophet Song is a dystopian novel that started to feel less and less futuristic as the months rolled on in 2023.

Just days before his win, we saw rioting in Dublin city centre following protests encouraged in part by far-right online activists in the wake of a shocking multiple stabbing. Hopefully Lynch isn’t a soothsayer, because his story spirals into an extremely dark conflict situation that sees the country become a very unsafe place indeed.

A counterpoint to this in parts is How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney. Though it’s set very firmly in the now, this is also a novel (Feeney’s second) that uses personal, intimate stories to build a bigger picture of the Ireland of today.

It brings us the gorgeous character of Jamie, a neurodivergent teenager who’s about to start secondary school. Having lost his mother when he was just a baby, he wants to build a boat to try and recover her through perpetual motion.

Alongside Jamie’s character we’re introduced to two of his teachers, Tess and Tadgh, who support Jamie while going through their own personal issues. It’s a deeply thoughtful book about community and also about the particular pressures on young boys in contemporary Ireland.

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray may not have won the Booker, but it did win the Irish Book Award for Novel of the Year. This novel is a tour de force, a hefty tome that feels light as a feather to read, despite the fact it’s dense with humour, conflict and family drama.

Murray is surely one of the wittiest Irish novelists right now, capable of wringing a laugh out of the darkest of moments. The Barnes family – Dickie, Imelda, Cassie and PJ – are depicted as human and damaged by Murray, and as he unspools their stories we see exactly how much more damage the world can wreak on them.

Rounding off the Booker foursome is Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry, a dreamy detective story narrated by the unreliable Tom Kettle, a retired policeman living in the countryside. When Kettle is asked to help out on a cold case involving a dead priest, the novel dives into a world of memory and trauma. You’re always in considered, talented hands when reading a Barry novel.

Service by Sarah Gilmartin is a second novel that shows Gilmartin’s growth as an author who can cast a sharp eye over how Irish society treats women. The chapters are shared between the perspectives of three different narrators: Hannah, Julie and Daniel.

Hannah once worked in a fancy Dublin restaurant during the Celtic Tiger which was run by Daniel, an ultra-macho chef. Julie is Daniel’s wife. We learn that the behaviour toward Hannah in the restaurant was abusive and damaging, and there’s a court case pending involving Daniel. But how does he view that period of time, and what about Julie, who stood by him through those years? Gilmartin is empathetic to all, but never loses a sense of reality about what can happen when you’re the survivor of sexual harassment.

An outstanding debut that, like Service, went a little under the radar but deserved much praise is Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong. Armstrong’s first book, How to Gut A Fish, was an excellent collection of short stories, and in a way Falling Animals takes from that approach, as each chapter is narrated by a different person who crossed paths with an unknown man on the last day of his life.

This means we get the differing experiences of locals living in an area of Sligo where the body of the man was found. Though the central mystery is ostensibly who the man was, Armstrong is more interested instead in the community in the village where he was found, illuminating the darker parts of a small town where outsiders can be treated with suspicion.

Another novel with multiple narrators is The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright, which brings us the voices of a mother and daughter – Carmel and Nell – and (for one chapter) a father/grandfather, the poet Phil McDaragh.

On paper, you can say that the book is about mother-daughter relationships and the shadow cast over women by men’s reputations. But the book is so much more than that. Enright lets Carmel and Nell in particular speak to us in their own distinct voices about their lives. They can be vain and self-centred, but they can also love fiercely and with difficulty. Phil McDaragh, meanwhile, has a reputation for tender poetry, but in reality abandoned his family.

A punchier debut you couldn’t find than Close to Home by Michael Magee, which is narrated by a young Belfast man called Sean, who has returned from university in the UK to find himself sucked back into the bad habits he was trying to escape. It’s a book with grit and heart, which delves into the lives of young ‘Ceasefire babies’ and explores social issues in parts of Northern Ireland.

If you spent any time in Cork in the early 2010s, you’ll eat up The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue with a spoon. The London-based Corkonian introduces us to Rachel and James, two feckless bookshop employees who meet each other and fall firmly in friend-love.

Rachel develops a crush on one of her professors, and the pair’s attempt to hijack his attention goes in a very unexpected direction. This novel manages to make you laugh out loud, cringe yourself inside-out and feel deeply for a pair of pals who really should know better.

Motherhood in all of its guts and glory is broken apart in the world of Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy. Her first book in 10 years, this sees a mother (Soldier) deliver a monologue to her son (Sailor) about raising him, and her visceral, traumatic experiences of parenting. It’s far from an easy read, but it’s this intensity and willingness to bring us right to the edge that makes it such a compelling read.

What was your favourite Irish book of 2023? Tell us in the comments. 

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