On the 25th March 2017, in the Georgian grandeur of Club Na Múinteorí in Parnell Square, the second Carousel Aware Prize for Independent Authors will be launched. The CAP awards which are open only to Irish writers alongside the longer established Bord Gais Awards are now set to become a measure of the trends in Contemporary Irish Writing as well as recognising the centrality of the novel in modern culture.
Last year’s winners were an interesting and diverse selection, a mix of debut novels and ones from authors with as many as three previous novels. As a committee member, helping to compile the short lists I was particularly impressed with the independent authors’ ability to tackle difficult subjects. For example, the winner of the Best Short Story anthology, Kevin Doyle’s Do you Like Oranges? whose focus is on policing and interrogation techniques. The title story is set in Cork during the Hunger Strikes of the eighties, although the timing only serves to heighten the tension around the protagonist’s arrest. Doyle cleverly weaves in another story of a Chilean friend who experienced torture during the military coup thus not just implicating the Gardai in heavy handed tactics but suggesting a universal repressive force at large. Dave Lordan referred to this collection as “Brave writing” for its provocation and originality.
Police Investigation is also central to the debut novel White Church, Black Mountain by Thomas Paul Burgess, shortlisted in the CAP best novel category. This suspense thriller is set in Belfast and features the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team. It covers a period from 1970 to 2014 told through flashbacks which build up the suspense brilliantly. The real strength of the novel lies with the great cast of characters, ranging from the employees of the Good Relations Unit of Belfast City Council and their “bland conformity” to the central character Eban, a complex, damaged individual, determined to remain marginal. There is more of a sociological study than an emphasis on events and Burgess conveys very well the weariness of people who have lived with conflict all their lives. Although acts of violence are inevitable in the novel, the narrative does not depend on them for impact. Far more chilling are the references to death squads ordering pizza deliveries and taxis from unwitting companies located across the sectarian dividing lines. We all recall news reports such as these. This novel will be an important part of the “post conflict” literary output as the timeline and distance is about right. Novels produced too close to events just become like journalism.
Troubles of another sort are the subject matter of the winner of the CAP Best Novel Award: Her Secret Rose by Orna Ross, part one of a Yeats-Gonne trilogy with the intriguing subtitle: Between the Words. “I was twenty-three years old when the troubling of my life began” is how Yeats begins his description of his first meeting with Maud Gonne .The novel follows the couple from this first meeting in London right through to 1900. As the narrator, used as a framing device, says: “When looked at from the woman’s side of the bedsheet, most tales take a turning, and this one more than most”.
The fictionalised lives of historical people has become really popular among Irish writers in recent years. There was The Master by Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor’s Ghostlight and Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor each with their own distinctive style. Ross’s use of a narrator, Rosie Cross, “the teller of the tale”, creates some distance from Maud Gonne for the reader which is a pity and is in contrast to the stream of consciousness used by Joseph O Connor for Molly Allgood, in which a different type of character emerges, contrary to the reader’s expectations. The distance serves the author well, however, as a good feminist portrait of Gonne emerges which might not otherwise be possible. History has painted Gonne as the quintessential national icon but contemporary feminist writers now reject such uses of the female figure on the grounds that static and decorative emblems both undermine and silence the voices of real women. Ross concentrates instead on Gonne’s humanitarian aspects in her work among the poverty stricken people in Donegal and also on her love of her children, as well as her sometimes manipulative traits essential to a 19th century independent woman. Some of Yeats poems are deftly placed within the narrative. The White Birds is reproduced after the marriage proposal, leaving the reader to make the connection. Constructing a narrative retrospectively has many pitfalls, the main one being the author’s emulation of the style and language of the period. Ross skilfully negotiates these.
(c) Anne O’Leary