Contemporary Fiction Writers in Northern Ireland

An introduction to contemporary fiction by Northern Irish writers

Contemporary fiction by Northern Irish writers demonstrates a remarkable diversity and strength of voice, intent on examining the bigotries that have afflicted the island and caused so much conflict. Northern Ireland continues to produce writers who are determined to describe the world with a broad range of viewpoints, rather than be content to be pigeonholed or stereotyped.

Jennifer Johnston

Viewed by Roddy Doyle as the greatest ever Irish writer, Derry born Jennifer Johnston has been writing fiction for over four decades. Influenced by Brian Moore, she shares a sense of beauty in the mundane, and has created a cast of characters that feel instantly alive and recognisable. How Many Miles To Babylon? remains a classic, and through the years she has written many masterful novels, such as The Illusionist and The Old Jest.

Sean O’Reilly and Eoin McNamee

Sean O’Reilly explores a bleak hinterland in his novels Love and Sleep and The Swing Of Things. His characters are irreparably damaged by the conflict, but having freed themselves from the sectarian struggle, are now faced with wider and more devastating questions. O’Reilly’s books have a bleak, existential quality, questioning ideas of reconciliation and truth, with an intense lyricism not often found in Northern Irish fiction.

O’Reilly shares with Eoin McNamee a lyrical, dreamlike sensibility. McNamee has examined some of the darker moments in recent Irish history, using real-life events as the basis for his visceral and disturbing novels. His first three books, Resurrection Man, The Blue Tango and The Ultras, seek to explore the combined effects of religion and history on the lives of individuals. Criticised for beautifying violence with his poeticised prose, there is a deep energy and menace in his work, unfashionable beside more humorous or compassionate writers.

Thrills and Chills

Colin Bateman takes a far more scenic route for his collection of comic novels, packed with incident and bizarre characters, often centred on journalist and alcoholic, Dan Starkey. Some may quibble about the stereotypes that pervade phenomenally successful books such as Divorcing Jack and Driving Big Davie, but there is an urgency and confidence to the writing that is hard to ignore.

Bateman has led the way for a younger group of writers, including Simon Kerr and Zane Radcliffe, whose popular London Irish was widely acclaimed and successfully followed by Big Jessie and The Killer’s Guide To Iceland. These writers are less interested in examining the conflict and history of Northern Ireland than being wilfully perverse and as funny as possible.

Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson

The struggle to capture Northern Irish life without resorting to the techniques employed by the writers above is difficult. Those who try display a daring unmatched by many of their contemporaries.

Glenn Patterson seeks to examine how ordinary people live decently among political and cultural change. In Fat Lad, The International and That Which Was, he examines politics in a refreshing and unsentimental way, but with a quiet indignation always present beneath the surface.

With Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson presented a scabrous yet beautiful account of Belfast, simultaneously managing to offend as many quarters as possible. He combined exaggerated satire with an astonishing lyricism, utilised to breathtaking effect in consideration of the city where he was born and raised.

Carlo Gebler continues to produce finely written and evocative work, including the chilling How To Murder A Man, and his moving account of his eccentric upbringing in Father and I. David Park has quietly produced a formidable body of work. His depictions of domestic life in novels such as The Big Snow slowly reveal themselves to be elegiac and encompassing.

Reading In The Dark, by poet and critic Seamus Deane, is an astonishing portrayal of how family secrets can continue to haunt for generations. He uniquely captures the paranoia and sorrow that the troubles inflict on people’s lives. Reading in the Dark quickly became a centrally important work.

Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal powerfully examined how the troubles affected family and community. MacLaverty went on to produce several key novels, including the Booker short-listed Grace Notes.

Deirdre Madden writes sparely about art and politics, and has gradually become one of the country’s most popular novelists with the recent publication of Authenticity.

The Future

Recent years have seen the appearance of a younger set of writers who seem intent on describing Northern Ireland whilst challenging certain orthodoxies. Anna Burns writes evocatively of her childhood in No Bones, Simon Kerr’s The Rainbow Singer describes the perils of youth work in Belfast, and Jo Baker's Offcomer charts the attempts of a woman to lead a better life in her adopted city home. No single work of fiction can hope to represent such a divided and dizzying landscape, but those that come close deserve great praise and a wide readership.

Further Reading:
Authenticity (2002) by Deirdre Madden; London Irish (2002) by Zane Radcliffe; Offcomer (2002) by Jo Baker; The Big Snow (2002) by David Park; The Rainbow Singer (2001) by Simon Kerr; No Bones (2001) by Anna Burns; Love and Sleep (2000) by Sean O’Reilly; How To Murder A Man (1998) by Carlo Gebler; Reading In The Dark (1996) by Seamus Deane.

Divorcing Jack (1995) by Colin Bateman; Eureka Street (1994) by Robert McLiam Wilson; Resurrection Man (1994) by Eoin McNamee; Fat Lad (1992) by Glenn Patterson; Cal (1983) by Bernard MacLaverty; How Many Miles To Babylon? (1981) by Jennifer Johnson.

Gavin Carville