The best recent novels by Irish women writers that tell you what it is like to live in a head, a body, a society

Siobhán Parkinson Author Of All Shining in the Spring: The Story of a Baby Who Died
By Siobhán Parkinson

Who am I?

I’ve chosen to recommend fiction by Irish women, because I’m a female Irish writer myself. My own books are mostly for children, but, hey, I’m an adult. As well as a writer I am a retired publisher, a not-quite-retired editor, and an occasional translator, so I tend to engage very closely – OK, obsessively – with text. I have a pretty serious visual impairment, so most of my ‘reading’ is through the medium of audiobooks. I’m never sure if that influences my taste in reading. Anyway, these are the books I’ve liked recently, and hope you do too.


I wrote...

All Shining in the Spring: The Story of a Baby Who Died

By Siobhán Parkinson,

Book cover of All Shining in the Spring: The Story of a Baby Who Died

What is my book about?

Writing All Shining in the Spring changed my life. In 1991, my second son was stillborn. We were all heartbroken, and my older son (who was 6 at the time) was devastated. I wrote this book for him, and for other children experiencing this particularly difficult kind of bereavement. 

I had a vague ambition to be a writer, but I’d never thought of writing for children. All Shining changed that, and since then I’ve written about thirty books, mostly for children. I went on to found my own publishing company, Little Island Books – and when I retired recently from Little Island, that little boy for whom this book was written took over as publisher. (He did grow up in the meantime!)

The books I picked & why

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Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan,

Book cover of Small Things Like These

Why this book?

This is a tender and profound novella of family and society set in 1985. That’s the year my son (protagonist, as a little boy, of my own book) was born. It feels a lot earlier; but then this is rural Ireland. It is about simple people living close to poverty and in a society so full of secrets it hardly seems to know it has secrets. The father of the family is called upon to be heroic. And he rises to the challenge.

This book is about all kinds of things: a particular kind of deep and festering cruelty embedded in Irish society of the time; misogyny; class; repression; fear. But ultimately it is about bravery, empathy, quiet heroism. It is quite wonderful. 

Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Small Things Like These as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize

"A hypnotic and electrifying Irish tale that transcends country, transcends time." —Lily King, New York Times bestselling author of Writers & Lovers

Small Things Like These is award-winning author Claire Keegan's landmark new novel, a tale of one man's courage and a remarkable portrait of love and family

It is 1985 in a small Irish town. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant and family man faces into his busiest season. Early one morning, while delivering an order to the local convent, Bill makes a discovery which forces him…


As You Were

By Elaine Feeney,

Book cover of As You Were

Why this book?

A few years ago, I spent a week in the hospital recovering from surgery. When my husband came to visit, I would fill his ears with tragic and/or hilarious tales of my ward-mates. He kept saying, “Write it down. This is novel material.” He was right. But I didn’t. 

Looks like Elaine Feeney did. Her novel, mostly set in a hospital ward, is uproariously funny as well as deeply sad and very wise. 

I grew up near Elaine’s home town in east Galway. So, though I don’t know her, I do know the society she is writing about. And she gets it spot on!

As You Were

By Elaine Feeney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked As You Were as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE KATE O'BRIEN AWARD 2021
SHORTLISTED FOR THE RATHBONES FOLIO PRIZE 2021
SHORTLISTED FOR THE IRISH BOOK AWARDS NOVEL OF THE YEAR 2020
AN OBSERVER BEST DEBUT 2020

'Riveting... I was exhilarated reading this' Roddy Doyle

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can't go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the…


Haven

By Emma Donoghue,

Book cover of Haven

Why this book?

My husband (who is a woodturner) convenes a writing group for people who write about craft. I think that group should read this novel, set in a seventh-century monastic community, pretty well on a very large rock (Skellig Michael), for its detailed accounts of living on next to nothing and yet engaging, almost unaware, in meticulous daily craftsmanship. 

That isn’t what the book is about, exactly: it’s mostly about an extreme and obsessively self-denying way of life; it’s about how even a tiny handful of men fall into master and underling roles; it’s about how fear of the unknown leads to the creation of monsters in people’s minds, which in turn leads to tragedy. A hard book, in many senses. But amazing. 

Haven

By Emma Donoghue,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Haven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this beautiful story of adventure and survival from the New York Times bestselling author of Room, three men vow to leave the world behind them as they set out in a small boat for an island their leader has seen in a dream, with only faith to guide them.

In seventh-century Ireland, a scholar and priest called Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind. Taking two monks—young Trian and old Cormac—he rows down the river Shannon in search of an isolated spot on which to found a monastery. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the…


This Happy

By Niamh Campbell,

Book cover of This Happy

Why this book?

Let’s be clear: the title is ironic. This is a love story, told mostly in retrospect. Well, it’s not love exactly. It’s sex. Or a kind of twisted idea of romance. It’s attraction anyway, not quite obsessive, but close.  And it’s mysterious. Who are these people? How do they connect to each other? How do they know each other? Do they even like each other? Why/why not?

The answers, if readers can identify them, are not reassuring. And yet... I loved this book, read it twice, straight off. It’s partly the descriptions of the physical world – natural and constructed – always partial, never conclusive, that are so attractive to read. 

And it’s a very young book. Exhilarating. 

This Happy

By Niamh Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Happy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A beautiful, wry love story' David Nicholls, author of ONE DAY

'I love this woman's writing. Golden sentences' Diana Evans, author of ORDINARY PEOPLE

'One of the year's most beautifully written books, THIS HAPPY traces the path to womanhood of Alannah from disastrous affair to no-less-comfortable marriage and beyond' The i, Best Books of 2020 So Far

'If you loved Sally Rooney's NORMAL PEOPLE, read this novel ... Darkly romantic ... Reminiscent of Eimear McBride's lyrical Joycean sentences' Vogue

'The best novel I have read all year' Sunday Business Post

I have taken apart every panel of this, like an…


Things I Know

By Helena Close,

Book cover of Things I Know

Why this book?

Theoretically for Young Adults (meaning older teenagers), this one is also for adults of any age. It’s about exclusion, anxiety, depression, suicide, all matters that have touched my own family with tragedy, 

Helena Close knows about mental illness and what it feels like, and she describes it in visceral detail. But she is a sharp and funny writer, and she takes no prisoners when it comes to the false assurances of a certain kind of charlatan ‘counsellor’. 

The heroine of this book seems set to drown in sorrow, but she learns, slowly and with help, how to swim up out of pain and fear towards the light. So uplifting!

Things I Know

By Helena Close,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Things I Know as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Saoirse (18) can't wait to leave school - but just before the Leaving Cert her ex-boyfriend dies by suicide. Everyone blames Saoirse - even Saoirse herself, who cheated on him with his best friend. She is shunned by her schoolmates and suffers unbearable levels of anxiety.


Everything becomes too much, and on the night of the school Debs, Saoirse throws herself into the river - and wakes up in a psychiatric hospital. Slowly, painfully, with the support of a friendly hospital cleaner, her old best friend, her kind and hilarious grandmother, and even her irritating sister, Saoirse regains her sense…


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