My Top Books of 2022. 

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 24th February 2023

These Days. Lucy Caldwell. Faber: €1820. Kindle: €9.24.

It’s Spring 1941 in Belfast, and the inhabitants are starting to hope that they’ve escaped the worst of the war. But in the four nights that comprise the Belfast Blitz, German raids will reduce much of the city to rubble. Taking this as her backdrop, Lucy Caldwell’s brilliant fourth novel, takes one family – and a few subsidiary characters, and shows how the raids impact on their lives.

Sisters Audrey and Emma Bell come from a fairly ordinary middle-class family. Their father’s a doctor, leaving their mother to run the family with the aid of a housekeeper. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that each family member is facing demons, and that the raids will highlight this, and change the course of their lives.

Audrey has ambivalent feelings towards her fiancée and wonders why she doesn’t feel happier at the prospect of marriage to someone so apparently suitable. Meanwhile, her sister, Emma, is starting to accept that her feelings for Sylvia, her dazzling workmate at the Red Cross first-aid station, extend further than friendship.

The novel follows both sisters through the raids, and is so visually written, that the reader is there with them, walking the devastated streets. It’s a beautifully researched and nuanced novel, but this attention for detail never impinges on the human story – it merely enhances it. This resonated more with me than did any of the many other books I’ve read featuring the period.

In short, this novel is sublime. No wonder the late Hilary Mantel praised it, calling it a novel of real substance. It’s beautifully rendered and is also unputdownable. It’s a novel to press into the hands of everyone you know, and is, without doubt, the best book I’ve read in 2022.

Spies in Canaan. David Park. Bloomsbury: €19.69. Kindle: €9.24.

I’ve long been a fan of David Park’s. I love his ability to write beautifully about terrible things; and his eye for character is always pitch perfect. Most of his novels are either set in his native Northern Ireland, or feature characters from there, but his 12th novel is something of a departure.

It centres on Michael, an American from the Midwest, who is sent to serve in Vietnam towards the close of war. Michael has an army desk job, but he is drawn into the horrifying heart of things by a superior officer, who takes him to witness a prisoner who has been tortured and then tricked into handing over information.

Michael is, very much a fish out of water. From an evangelical background, he’s cultured and ethical, and towards the end of his life, he sets off on a journey into the desert seeking understanding and atonement.

Although the novel is geographically and historically very different from his previous books, it does share the same emotional and psychological depth. What becomes of these soldiers when they look back on the actions they have taken in the name of patriotism? Will they carry guilt even if they were nothing more than innocent bystanders?

Saigon, and its’ people come alive through Park’s writing – and there are tonal echoes, of Graham Greene’s work – particularly the Quiet American

The messiness of the American withdrawal Park describes, has strong parallels with their recent retreat from Afghanistan, yet he penned the novel before this happened. Writing it, in its entirety, before Covid hit. It’s an astonishing achievement.

Audrey Magee The Colony. Faber. €14.67. Kindle: €6.94.

The Colony is based on a tiny Irish Island where Irish is still, almost exclusively, spoken. It’s the summer of 1969, and an English artist, Mr Lloyd, is setting out there to spend the summer in splendid isolation, in the hope of finding renewed artistic inspiration. He’s dismayed when, just days later, Masson, a French linguist arrives on his annual visit, writing on the preservation of the Irish language. The two men clash – and, literally, fight over the turf.

Both are using the islanders; Masson interviews them for his thesis, and Mr Lloyd persuades the beautiful Mairead to pose for him. And he, rather grudgingly, allows Mairead’s son, James, to become his apprentice.

In essence, the Colony is a metaphor for Ireland. The text is broken up with accounts of every sectarian death that occurred that summer, and the author shows the effect of that violence on the islanders. The Colony is a glorious read; hugely impressive, immersive and thought provoking, it’s filled with fascinating debate, and no little humour. 

Magee came to prominence as an author prepared to tackle complex questions with her debut, the Undertaking, and this one, which was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, confirms her as one of Ireland’s most interesting literary writers.

Louisa Reid. The Poet. Doubleday: €17.37. Kindle: €8.88.

Emma is an academic star, and a prizewinning poet with a bright future. But at 25, she’s failing to complete her doctoral thesis.  Why? She’s living in Oxford with Tom, her charismatic former professor, and is mired in the drudgery of domesticity.

Emma was attracted to Tom from the start. She pulled out all the stops to get him to notice her, and to take her seriously, but underneath that smooth exterior, Tom is a manipulative cheat. He is now undermining Emma at every turn. Her confidence has melted away, and she’s become an emotional wreck. How far will Tom have to go before she accepts that he has overstepped the mark? And when he does, should she keep quiet, or is it time to fight back?

This is by no means the first novel written about misogyny, and the power of a man who believes he is invulnerable, but this one is the most explosive, brilliant and ultimately redemptive one I have ever read.

Louisa has written four YA novels, but this is her first foray into adult fiction. Written in verse, it’s a passionate, compulsive read which is both beautiful and haunting. As for the ending – it will take your breath away.  

Olivia Fitzsimons. The Quiet Whispers Never Stop. John Murray: €16.75. Kindle: €8.09.

Fitzsimons is also dealing with misogyny – but the setting for her novel about the dysfunctional family of Nuala, Pat and Sam Malin is set in working class Northern Ireland, a world away from leafy Oxford.   

Nuala Malin left her husband and two children when Sam was still small. Now, in her final year at school, at war with her dad, she, too, longs to flee the constraints of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, escaping through music and drugs, she becomes obsessed with Naoise, an erratic older man. But he has a secret.

This novel’s setting impacts the story, with the echo of the troubles haunting its pages. But at its heart, it’s a tale of teenage desire eliminating sense. The feelings Sam felt for Naoise, which so dominated her life, were utterly relatable.

The product of a wounded marriage, suffering the trauma of loss, Sam is a brilliant creation. Fearless, funny and poignantly real. And the narrative pings along – as compulsive as it is shocking. Fitzsimons has produced a brilliant debut – the best Irish one in a strong year. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Published in the Irish Examiner, on 17th December.

© Sue J leonard. 2022.

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