The book trade is bracing itself for another bumper year of Irish women’s fiction. New titles by Cecelia Ahern, Marian Keyes, Liz Nugent, Sheila O’Flanagan and yours truly have all been heralded by The Bookseller magazine as ones to watch out for in 2017.
It wasn’t always so. A generation ago, Ireland was seen as the war-torn arse-end of Europe, populated by gurriers, poltroons, priests and sad-eyed women whose prescribed reading was Peig, the mother of all misery memoirs. Indigenous women’s commercial fiction simply didn’t exist. We were parched for reading material.
Then something wonderful happened. In 1982 a woman who had been writing a weekly column for The Irish Times published a novel called Light a Penny Candle. Her name was Maeve Binchy. Maeve was the first Irish writer to produce accessible female-centric fiction, and suddenly Irish women – downtrodden and ignored for centuries – were in the limelight. There was a real sense of empowerment, of freeing ourselves from the shackles of male-oriented bureaucracy and priest-driven orthodoxy – and I know, because I was there.
Maeve’s success took her – and her publishing house – completely by surprise. She never dreamed that her novels, grounded as they were in the commonplace, would make her an international star. Her characters are Everywoman, in that they deal with the issues and anxieties we all confront and, as a result, her books have been translated into more than fifty languages. ‘On a good day,’ she once told me, ‘I feel gleeful that I seem to have stumbled on a universal truth; on a bad day, I feel as if I’m writing clichés flying in formation.’
Maeve was followed by Patricia Scanlon, and Patricia was followed by Cathy Kelly and Marian Keyes and Sheila O’Flanagan, and the overnight sensation that was Irish women’s commercial fiction high-heeled its way into the 21st century, elbowing the boys out of the way. In a country where Edna O’Brien’s novels had been banned for being ‘dirty’, women were writing and reading and talking dirty, delving into mucky real-life issues while simultaneously soaring off into the spheres of romantic love and uninhibited sex – and revelling in it.
Why, exactly, is Irish women’s fiction so successful? There is a tradition of story-telling that has been nurtured in this country for centuries. Women would tell stories by the fireside or when they gathered together for birthing. Professional story-tellers – shanachie – travelled around Ireland, visiting homesteads and recounting fables by the fireside in return for a shilling or two and a bed for the night. But the shanachie – the ones who got paid – were invariably men.
While British women had Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot to tell their stories in print, we had nobody. Irish women knew their place: in the kitchen, pregnant and barefoot (or worse, in sensible shoes), not running across the moors with Heathcliff or exchanging badinage with Mr Darcy. Before Maeve Binchy, the only bestselling Irish ‘lady novelist’ was one Amanda McKittrick-Ros, cited by Nick Page, the author of In Search of the World’s Worst Authors as the worst of the worst. Her novels sold because readers – men especially – loved to sneer at them. So when Binchy broke the silence, was it any wonder that a vociferous tsunami ensued? Irish woman had demonstrated that we could put pen to paper as well as our illustrious male antecedents; we could broadcast our woes and celebrate our triumphs and laugh and cry with our sisters.
That word ‘sisters’ is key as to why Irish women writers have become so huge. There is among us a real sense of sorority, which I understand is largely lacking in our UK counterparts. When I started writing, the Orange Prize-nominated Deirdre Purcell was responsible for spurring me on to finish my first novel. Today, if in need of advice, I would not hesitate to pick up the phone to Cecelia Ahern or Cathy Kelly. Marian Keyes and Liz Nugent are among my dearest friends. We routinely email each other works-in-progress, critique and bolster each other. Another friend, Hilary Reynolds, writes for the soap opera Fair City, and every week we walk along the Pigeon House pier, a mile out to sea, bouncing ideas for stories off each other. Sisterhood is an incredibly special thing, and that is essentially what women’s fiction is, because reading a good book is like spending quality time with a best friend.
Commercial fiction is a multi-million pound industry, and everyone in publishing is looking for that next woman with the Midas touch who can make readers care, laugh, cry and cheer; the woman who can make you think ‘That’s exactly how I feel!’ or ‘Don’t let him talk to you like that!’. What is disparagingly called ’chick lit’ is not all handbags and cocktails and frivolity. It’s about warmth and empathy and knowing that when you open the book you bought during your lunch break, it’s guaranteed to take you to a place you really want to be, meeting characters you really want to know.
But it’s not just the comforting, feel-good factor that makes Irish women such great story-tellers. It’s an instinctive quest for humour in darkness. Marian Keyes calls it ‘humour as a survival mechanism’, and attributes our success to the fact that we are celebrating in writing how it feels to be enfranchised after centuries of second-class citizenship. We can be irreverent now: we can thumb our noses at the priests who belittled us and the men who told us to shut up. Liz Nugent, Ireland’s newest grip-lit export, agrees:
‘Irish women have been on the edge of society for generations,’ she says. ‘Our voices were not welcome as the patriarchy reigned, but this made us powerful observers. Even our smallest stories tell you something about human psychology. Although we still are not allowed bodily autonomy (watch this space #repealthe8th), we have most certainly found our voice, and because we were silenced for so long, we have a huge amount to say. In our writing, we are speaking for the generations before us, and you’re never going to shut us up now.’
It’s not simply an issue of content over form. Keyes also points out that our writing style is unique because – although the language we use is English – our voice is distinctly Irish. ‘The Irish revel in words,’ she says. ‘The rhythm and structure we use is different to the way English is spoken in the UK – it’s baroque, colourful, quirky, conversational. It can sometimes even seem illogical, but the sense emerges in an entertaining, roundabout way.’ And that’s because it’s rooted in the tradition of tales told by those luckless shawls sitting out the long winter evenings waiting for the shanachi to clamber over the hill. And when the shanachi didn’t turn up, the shawlies told their tales for them, never dreaming that one day their story-telling skills might earn them a six-figure advance.
It’s the skill that Maeve Binchy reinvented thirty-five years ago and one that will hopefully be passed on to another generation – and another one after that. Now that our tongues have been loosened, may we go on sharing our stories with each other, our readers, our family and our friends, for as long as they choose to listen.
(c) Kate Beaufoy
About The Gingerbread House:
Nestled among cherry trees in a picturesque country garden, the Gingerbread House resembles an illustration from an old-world storybook. But beware! For in the fairy-tale, that’s where the witch lives…
Away from the city, with no distractions, the Gingerbread House seems like the perfect place to start work on a novel. That’s what former advertising copywriter Tess thinks when she goes there to live with Eleanor, her aged mother-in-law. But Eleanor is suffering from dementia, and caring for her proves tougher than Tess could ever have imagined: feeling increasingly isolated, her only comfort is wine o’clock and weekend visits from her husband. Meanwhile her teenage daughter Katia is helpless to intercede; in the end she can only watch as things fall apart and a tragedy even closer to home surfaces.
The Gingerbread House is a deeply moving novel: a compassionate and occasionally wickedly funny tale of a family’s agonising struggle with dementia.
What readers are saying about The Gingerbread House:
‘Moving, honest, and darkly comic, The Gingerbread House confronts an issue that has been taboo for too long.
‘Gripping, heartbreaking, funny, surprising – The Gingerbread House is all of these, and a lot more.’
‘Beautiful, heartbreaking, original, honest, unique.
Pick up your copy online here.