For Irish Book Week Mairéad Hearne talks about an author she discovered this year
Reading is a constant in my life so, a few years back, I decided to set up a blog where I could share my thoughts. Over the years my reading has taken me on extraordinary adventures across many genres, with books written by authors from across the globe but I have always had a special grá for Irish writers.
In recent years there has been an explosion of books, both fiction and non-fiction, written by Irish authors, leaving us all in the delightful position of being very much spoilt for choice. In trying to decide which author to write about here today, I considered our 2023 four longlisted Booker Prize nominees, Sebastian Barry, Paul Murray, Paul Lynch, and Elaine Feeney. I have read all four books, each of them extraordinary and, except for Sebastian Barry, each had been new to me. But then I realised something, I was going to have to write about an Irish author who almost slipped through my net and had been, inexplicably, off my radar.
Over the summer I saw a post on Instagram by author Andrea Mara. She was at a book launch for The Lodgers by Eithne Shortall. Andrea, clearly a huge fan, was highly recommending Eithne’s writing so I made an immediate decision at the time to pick up a copy of It Could Never Happen Here which was published in 2022.
As a reviewer I receive many advance copies of books but, unfortunately, I just cannot read them all. When It Could Never Happen Here arrived through my letterbox in September 2022 it was in celebration of its paperback release but, guilty as charged, I never read it at the time.
I was expecting it to be a light-hearted novel but it turned out to be a book that had an enormous impact on me. I had read The Bee Sting by Paul Murray, with its intricate plotlines and layers, and I experienced a similar punch to the gut with this book.
Eithne Shortall is a writer who knows her characters well. She is a writer who explores real people with real lives. She is a writer whose work I felt a connection with. Being from Cork I of course loved the West Cork rural setting, with all the personalities you would expect in a small town. It was a book filled to the brim with sensitivity, humour, grief, and pain while also delving into the insular nature of a small community and the spiteful and prying behaviour of its inhabitants.
A copy of The Lodgers was next on my agenda, which I received, personally signed, via the gorgeous Tertulia Books in Westport. Within pages, I was yet again charmed by the style and the uplifting nature of Eithne Shortall’s writing. The Lodgers tells the story of Tessa, a 69-year-old woman living alone. After a fall, Tessa opens her home to two lodgers, Conn, and Chloe, both in need of a little humanity. Set primarily in the coastal village of Howth, north of Dublin city, The Lodgers explores the blossoming relationship between these three unexpected housemates and how they come to find solace in each other’s company.
Eithne Shortall writes character-driven stories, giving each individual distinct quirks and personalities. There is always at least one identifiable character for every reader, one you can compare with, visualise quite easily, and develop genuine affection for. There is an understanding of human nature, a sense that Eithne Shortall really knows what she is talking about.
In The Lodgers, Tessa’s altruism is very much reflective of some parts of society today, where folk have offered refuge to immigrants in need. The loss of community and that feeling of isolation are unfortunately all too common in our world. Eithne Shortall has created a beautiful alternative, imagining how our lives could be so greatly improved if we all just took a moment to look up and really see what is happening around us.
When I read a work of fiction, I love that feeling of engaging with the characters and immersing myself into the world that the writer has created. Eithne Shortall has that skill in abundance, and it has been a wonderful experience discovering her work. Her books may not be familiar to some of you so I do hope my words here may encourage you to find out for yourself the joy of Eithne Shortall’s writing.