Irish fiction hasn’t kept up with Irish reality. So we get “literary” novels about paedophile priests, novels about the Famine, novels in which farmers walk the fields - but who pops into Starbucks and orders a grande chai latte with soy? During the last decade few novelists have bothered to notice what modern Ireland is actually like. This is terrain that Paul Howard … has made his own, seeing - or, more accurately, hearing - what the Irish really are, in south Dublin anyway … You will search the pages of our more distinguished literary novelists in vain for this kind of thing. When was the last time you read a novelist whose ear for the way some Irish people speak was so acute that he was capable of writing a sentence like “Just going back to what you were saying there about the whole non-national thing”?About two weeks ago, actually, when I read Kevin Power’s BAD DAY IN BLACKROCK. Power’s novel deals with the same strata of Irish society as Howard’s, albeit in a more serious vein. While I believe that the culture both men target is so hollow as to defy satire – Howard’s novels are much closer in tone to farce – Power certainly recreated the mini-cosmos with a deft touch, in the process showcasing a sharp ear for dialogue.
Having said that, you have to wonder why Power ignores novels other than “literary” ones when making his point about fiction not dealing with the ‘real Ireland’. There are many examples of women’s fiction, aka chick lit, nailing the zeitgeist, the best and most popular being Marian Keyes. And, naturally, there are any amount of crime fiction novels that do so too. In 2008 alone we’ve had Declan Hughes’s THE DYING BREED, Tana French’s THE LIKENESS, Brian McGilloway’s GALLOWS LANE, Andrew Nugent’s SOUL MURDER, and Ingrid Black’s CIRCLE OF THE DEAD.
You can argue in your own time about the literary merits, or otherwise, of those novels, although I’d argue that when it comes to storytelling, language is a tool akin to the sculptor’s chisel or the filmmaker’s camera – in other words, it needs to be first and foremost functional before it can start claiming any other virtues. The point being, there are plenty of novels relevant to the ‘real Ireland’ – there are novels due from Gene Kerrigan, Christy Kenneally, Declan Hughes and Tana French next year – that are being written with an ear for who we are now and where we are going.
This is not to damn “literary” novels for not engaging with modern Ireland; a little birdie, for example, tells me that Gerard Donovan, for one, is currently at work on ‘a novel of crimes’, while David Park’s THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER, published earlier this year, is a powerful work about the post-Troubles political landscape in Northern Ireland. But why is it that only “literary” novels are accorded sufficient weight and credibility when it comes to recording the authentic experience of what is ‘real’ about the way we live?