From the pandemic to the war in Ukraine, the last two years have taught us more than we ever thought we could learn about living in a global, connected society.
Where fiction is concerned, awards like the Dublin Literary Award, which takes nominations from libraries all over the world, can be very useful in introducing readers to new voices, viewpoints and cultures. This year's shortlist is no exception, featuring stories from Germany, Senegal, Nigeria, Algeria and First Nation Canada as well as Ireland.
The Irish novel in contention this year is Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling. I was delighted to see the book on the list – Danielle is a very well-known and widely celebrated short story writer, but this was her debut novel. It’s an engaging, very readable account of a Cork based art historian who is working on a retrospective of a famous sculptor, and whose plans are thrown into disarray when a woman turns up claiming to have influenced his most famous work. As well as having fun with the complexities of the art world, the book also takes a wry look at the pressures of the mid 40s, parenthood, marriage and the aftermath of an affair.
The judges say "McLaughlin creates a compelling portrait of a life spent in pursuit of art and happiness. She summons up contemporary Cork, the universality of marital woes, and the everyday frustrations of middle-age in elegantly chiseled prose."
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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi - listen to an extract
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi is a novel that starts at the end, with the devastating image of the body of a much-loved son dumped on his mother’s doorstep. The novel then goes backwards and forwards through time, examining the life of Vivek Oji and those who loved him – or rather, who loved them, as the novel also explores issues of gender, identity and belonging. These are complex issues but the reader is in good hands as Emezi writes with empathy and understanding. A sucker punch ending will remain with the reader long after the final page is turned,and, for me, this was the most memorable of the six shortlisted books.
The judges said: From that first sentence, we are immersed in contemporary Nigeria in all of its complexity, where tight family and community bonds are woven into the submerged stories of gay, bisexual and transgender people, and where groups such as the ‘Nigerwives’ (foreign-born wives of Nigerian men) form one of the cultures that make up the mosaic of Nigerian society. Emezi’s novel manages to balance an unflinching realism with something of the quality of a folktale or a myth.
The issue of belonging is also to the fore in The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated from the French by Frank Wynne. The novel, which was a bestseller in France tells the story of three generations of an Algerian family who eventually make their home in France. The youngest member, Naima has to decide what she thinks about a country she is expected to regard as a homeland but has never actually visited.
The judges citation reads: "Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves (and what we leave unspoken) in order to make sense of who we are in the world."
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is the most overtly literary book on the list, more a work of prose / poetry than a conventional novel. The word Noopiming comes from the Anishinaabeg people who are indigenous to Canada and the novel, we are told was written as a response to an 1852 book entitled In The Bush. The central character in the story is frozen in ice and their story is told through seven other characters, not all of them human, who experience the world around them. This book requires a bit of work from the reader – I listened to a podcast interview with the author to get to grips with the text – but the result is rewarding.
The judges described the book as ‘literary art; charming, witty, insightful and unforgettable’ and a ‘powerful insight into how Indigenous people have tried to sustain their identity and their old traditions as they navigate living in the modern world’.
Remote Sympathy by New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey takes us back to the concentration camps of the second World War. Frau Greta Hahn is married to the camp’s administrator, and initially doesn’t seem to understand the reality of life inside the camp’s walls. But when an illness forces her into contact with an inmate, truth is brought to the surface.
The judges say the book is ‘harrowing but ultimately hopeful, ... a passionate warning against the dangers of our wilful ignorance in the face of oppression which is, sadly, of urgent relevance today, and every day."
The final book on the list, At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, takes us to the first World War, where two Senegalese soldiers are fighting for France. Following his Mademba’s brutal death, Alfa is lost in the savagery of conflict and sprials towards insanity. Translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, this book has already won the International Booker prize along with many other awards. The judges say:
"At Night All Blood is Black is a carefully crafted, heart-wrenching, passionate, and engaging story about the insanity of war and its devastating toll on humanity."
The 27th winner of the Dublin Literary Award will be announced on Thursday 19th May, as part of the opening day programme of International Literature Festival Dublin (ILFDublin), which is also sponsored by Dublin City Council - find out more here.