This week: 'It’s a masterpiece, is what it is. Outstanding'

This week there’s a mixture of short stories, novels and a novella. The quality is through the roof, and all except one are written by Irish authors.

A Mind of Winter, Eoghan Smith, Dedalus Books, €11.99

The opening page of this novella echoes the closing paragraph of Joyce’s The Dead. The snow is falling everywhere. Joyce is succinct in his description, yet he covers the entire island. Smith is not, though he’s covering a much tinier landscape, the immediate vicinity around Fox’s cottage, near a college town where he works as a researcher. He’s had a phone call from his ex-lover, Clara, to say that her husband is gravely ill but must speak to Fox urgently before he… well… pops his clogs.

Fox reluctantly trudges off in the snow and suffers a fall. It looks like he might die of hypothermia and to say more about the plot would be to spoil. But this work isn’t about plot, it’s about ruminations on a life not well lived, the life Fox has led up to now. He’s a bitter old sod, but his bitterness is at least well-written bitterness, clothed in some staggeringly beautiful passages. It’s described as ‘darkly comedic’ though I struggled to find the comedy. That said, it’s a fine piece of writing, full of admirable craftsmanship.

Without Waking Up, Carolina Schutti, Translated by Deirdre McMahon, Bullaun Press, €14

Displacement, exile, the thrumming pain of loss and loneliness are the themes explored in this book by Austrian author Schutti. Originally written in German, it won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2015, and the English translation is by Irish translator Deirdre McMahon, who has done a stellar job. The prose style is so sparse and pared-back you can almost hear an echo as you move through the chambers of this short but powerful novel, where Maja looks back on her life in Austria, rather than in her native Belarus.

We’re not told why her father moved himself and Maja to Austria after her mother’s death, when Maja was still very young. Nor are we told why he abandoned her, leaving her in the care of a kind enough but very strict great aunt. Maja’s childhood is forever blighted by her mother’s death. She is no Austrian, but by now she’s no Belarusian either and her relationships are hampered by her sense of isolation. Central to the story is Maja’s loss of her native tongue, exemplified by the leanness of the language. It may be lean, but it is also delicate and exquisite and utterly eloquent.

Topographia Hibernica, Blindboy Boatclub, Coronet, €19.99

Through the comedy there emerges some truly tragic moments in Blindboy Boatclub’s latest anthology. Best known as one half of the Rubberbandits, he is by now a podcaster whose series attracts a million listeners a month, discussing everything from art history to mental health to whatever you’re having yourself. He’s also an established author, unafraid to veer wildly off-piste, into the territory of magical realism at times, while always tinged with Irishness.

A young man whose father, a vet, is now in a nursing home with dementia, decides to save a badly abused donkey. That involves squeezing the donkey into the back of a Fiat Punto. A family of feral cats live in uncomfortable and heart-wrenching misery. There’s a gym-bunny with a fierce inferiority complex, a bootlegger whose child dies and he convinces himself she was a changeling that the fairies stole. A young autistic boy knows almost everything there is to know about Jupiter but can’t understand the people around him. It’s a fine collection, imaginative, yet moored in the everyday, at times violent – even disgusting in spots – but always surprising and engrossing.

This Plague of Souls, Mike McCormack, Tramp Press, €16

Nealon returns to his isolated Mayo home after a spell in the clink to find his wife and baby son have vanished. He thought they’d stay. And as he crosses his home threshold for the first time in 10 months, his phone rings. The mysterious and unnamed caller reminds Nealon where the mains switch is in the house. He knows about Nealon’s past, he knows that his trial collapsed and that led to his release from prison, he knows where Nealon’s wife and child have gone. He insists they meet and have a conversation and his daily insistence over time leads Nealon to eventually relent; the meeting taking place in Dublin, the other side of the country.

The story notches itself up ever so slowly from what starts off as a series of reminiscences to a noir thriller, and the whole state of Ireland is on high alert although it’s never divulged exactly why. Cleaner prose than McCormack’s simply can’t be found. This is a short novel, not a sprawl, and yet there’s a vastness to it that’s uncanny. It’s a dystopian novel that doesn’t feel – or read – like a dystopian novel. It’s a masterpiece, is what it is. Outstanding.

Reading Rites, Evelyn Conlon, Blackstaff Press, €14.99

Evelyn Conlon describes herself not as a feminist writer but as a writer who is a feminist. She has never been easy to pin down as a writer, but she writes beautifully, with wry humour and empathy, and deserves to be better known, or more widely read, probably, than she is. That said, she’s a member of Aosdána so she’s not doing too badly. This memoir doesn’t begin with her childhood but instead in the 1970s when she went to live in Australia, enjoyed herself immensely, and finally returned to Ireland overland, a journey that took months and gave her lots of fuel for her stories. The reader, however, doesn’t get to know Conlon very well by the end of this memoir. Vehemently opposed to what she calls ‘emotional incontinence’, she plays her cards a little too close to her chest. There are no reveals, nothing we don’t already know. But the writing is, of course, sublime.


The Book of Kells Experience, a light show that is attracting a lot of attention in Trinity College, is open to the public. See for details and tickets.

The Ennis Book Club Festival takes place from March 1 to 3r. For info and tickets see