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The books that brought writers like Roddy Doyle and Tana French comfort in 2020

Irish and Ireland-based writers, including Roddy Doyle, Sinéad Gleeson and Tana French, tell us about the books that soothed them this year.

Image: Shutterstock/simona pilolla 2

IN A YEAR where so much seemed strange and uncertain, books could provide an anchor and hope. Whether it was revisiting classics, buying the latest novel by an Irish writer, or even turning to a genre you wouldn’t normally choose, people could find a bit of solace in books.

We asked Irish writers what they turned to in 2020 to give them comfort, and the results showed that comfort can be drawn from across the years and genres. You’ll find plenty here to keep you reading well into 2021 and beyond. 

Roddy Doyle, author of Love (Jonathan Cape)

“I read a lot of very good books this year but the ones that seemed to deliver comfort and reassurance were the books I’d read before – David Copperfield, by Dickens; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Sons and Lovers, by Turgenev. I don’t really know why I found comfort in these particular 19th Century classics. Perhaps it’s because they’ve survived world wars, book-burning ideologies, and a clatter of pandemics. Or maybe it’s just because they’re brilliant.”

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, author of the An Post Irish Book Awards-winning A Ghost In The Throat (Tramp Press)

“I’ve taken to keeping Paula Meehan’s newly-published As If By Magic (Dedalus Press) on my kitchen dresser, so it’s always within reach when I sit down with a cuppa. It stretches all the way from 1991 to 2016, with the poet selecting her own favourite poems from her books – some sorrowful, some provocative, some joyful, some brazen. This book has been a source of deep comfort to me, in allowing me to marvel at the results of decades of devotion to the art of poetry. I return to the astonishments of this wonderful collection again and again.”

Sinéad Gleeson, author of Constellations and editor of The Art Of The Glimpse, an anthology of Irish short stories (Head of Zeus)

“Sara Baume’s Handiwork is not just about creating things; it pivots towards what we give our attention to, taking in birds, art and grief (Baume writes beautifully about her late father). I picked up Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise after reading his poem ‘Grace’ online. It’s an incredible collection on family, illness and identity. Abi Palmer’s lyrical, hybrid memoir Sanatorium explores chronic illness and wellness culture in stunning, hallucinatory prose.” 

Emer McLysaght, co-author of the Oh My God, I’m A Complete Aisling series (Gill)

“In Patrick Freyne’s Ok, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea he writes with humour and skill about how he sometimes worries that he “can’t experience reality as fully or completely” as other people; that he’s “not all there”. Kathleen MacMahon’s novel Nothing But Blue Sky meanwhile introduced me to the concept of the “habit of happiness”. The former was relatable and the latter was revelatory and I just loved both books.

Sarah Breen, co-author of the Oh My God, I’m A Complete Aisling series (Gill)

“Nothing brings me more comfort than rereading Marian Keyes and this year I picked up Rachel’s Holiday (again) when I was in dire need of a cosy hug of a book. Relatable, perfectly observed and laugh-out-loud funny, it never lets me down. I cannot wait for the sequel.”

Tana French, author of The Searcher (Elm Tree Books)

“During lockdown I reread Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow. After the Russian Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov spends decades in house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. It’s a wonderful book at any time, and this time it brought home to me how people find ways to be happy, make connections, and make a difference to one another’s lives, even in the strangest, saddest and most restrictive circumstances.”

Oein DeBhairduin, author of Why The Moon Travels (Skein Press)

The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson is a memoir of a retired nurse which evokes beauty and shows us that we can draw strength from our human fragility. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban charts the complex world of a pair of windup toys in search of victory over a cruel system. Rereading this as an adult gave me a fresh perspective. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is the tale of a young boy navigating the death of a loved one showing us the starkness of the world and how uniquely we experience it.” 

Dr Rosaleen McDonagh, author of Unsettled (Skein Press, published in 2021)

“This year I was introduced to Judy Heumann’s Being Heumann, a narrative that felt somewhat familiar.There was pride and satisfaction in reading this twice. Then there was Nadina LaSpina’s Such A Pretty Girl, a disability female narrative that conjures up universal realities. Pure brilliant and emotional. Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong gives voice to younger disabled writers and readers adding to the genre of disability writing. These books are important in this ever-expanding genre where we have the lens, the reality and the editorial control.

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Dr Rosaleen McDonagh’s book ‘Unsettled’ will be published by Skein Press in 2021.

Sarah Maria Griffin, author of Words For Smoke (Titan Books Ltd)

“I’ve found reading really challenging this year, so turned to graphic novels to ease myself in when my focus was shot. Uzumaki by Junji Ito brought me a whole day of total escape, all surreal images and sinister, troubled characters. I’m currently reading Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class – her voice feels like coming home. I’ve also found poetry helpful during a time when concentrating was difficult: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho lives by my desk and offers ancient, tiny poems which remind me that even though the world feels like it is on fire, poetry and art have the capacity to survive much longer than we can even imagine.”

Caelainn Hogan, author of Republic of Shame (Penguin Ireland)

“A work of beauty and meaning, Oein DeBhairduin’s Why The Moon Travels is a collection of stories passed down through generations within the Irish Traveller community. This book is a reclaiming of narrative, a connection across divides, and a reminder of the wonder of storytelling itself. It might not be comfortable to face the reality of systemic racism but Emma Dabiri’s Don’t Touch My Hair is a crucial and brilliant read, as is Audre Lorde’s ever powerful Sister Outsider. I was also swept up in the extraordinary romance of Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat as well as the raw humour and humanity of Elaine Feeney’s As You Were.”

Elaine Feeney, poet and author of As You Were (Penguin Ireland)

“During 2020 I took comfort in poetry. Colette Bryce’s The M Pages, Geraldine Mitchell’s, Mute / Unmute, Ariana Reines’ A Sand Book and Rita Ann Higgins’ Pathogens Love a Patsy were wonderful. I love short stories and went back to favourites; Tobias Wolff, John McGahern, Alan McMonagle and Mike McCormack. Sinéad Gleeson’s The Art Of The Glimpse landed in the midst of the madness and just holding it was a comfort. (Reading it proved great too). After struggling with longer reads, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was the first novel that fully held my concentration. It’s truly a classic already, so well observed – a phenomenal work. Speaking of classics, I reread Black Beauty, just for something of the comfort reading brought me as a child.”

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