Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation was undoubtedly my favourite book of 2016. Inventive, articulate, thoughful and complex, it’s the work of an extraordinary mind and a passionate and unique intellect. Denise Riley’s Say Something Back is strong, crafted and multi-layered, and spectacularly brilliant in places.
Of the Irish poetry published in 2016 I particularly enjoyed Peter Sirr’s Sways, a set of poems derived from, and some written in response to, the Troubadour tradition. Sirr slips into the cadences and the simultaneously ironic and sincere voices of the poets he pays homage to. Sinéad Morrissey and Stephen Connolly’s edited collection The future always makes me so thirsty: New Poets from the North of Ireland is one of the most heartening and uplifting books of the year for the energy and talent it shows at work in poetry in Northern Ireland. It’s a great introduction to the work of many fine poets, especially Stephen Sexton, Adam Crothers (whose book Several Deer was also a highlight of the year) and Manuela Moser. Padraig Regan, also included in the anthology, published the wonderful pamphlet Delicious this year, a taster of more to come, hopefully. Eleanor Hooker’s A Tug of Blue is a very fine book of gently contained yet forceful poems.
Given my own Shostakovich obsession, I had high hopes of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a retelling of the composer’s life, and while Barnes’ book caught some of the intricate mysteries of Shostakovich’s mind, it felt programmatic and out of tune with Shostakovich’s serious comedy. Michael Dervan’s edited collection, The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland, 1916-2016 was, for me, the best thing to come out of the commemoration year – a beautiful book, full of things I never knew and filling out the story of classical music in Ireland.
Other highlights of year including reading Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo and her short book Hotel. Having Joanna as writer-in-residence in Maynooth University has been a real boon this year, but even leaving aside that role, Vertigo in particular is a really gorgeously unsettling book.
Unsettling in a different way is Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, an analysis of the way in which neoliberalism has breached the metaphysical boundaries of everyday life to make precarity ubiquitous.
It was great to see the RHA publish David Farrell’s Before During After … Almost, a wide-ranging catalgoue of his work over many years, all of it distinctively inquisitive, incisive and sensitive. And the revelation of the year was a book I’ll always treature and return to, The Complete Essays, 1973-1991 by Luigi Ghirri. Ghirri’s prose is like his photography – precise, revealing, and beautifully coloured.
In the year in which John Berger reached his 90th birthday Canongate republished his extraordinary book A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Its blend of documentary writing and Jean Mohr’s photography, along with Berger’s desire to understand one man’s life intimately, is overwhelming at times, and the final realisation that its subject, Dr John Sassall, who has taken on the existential burdens of an entire community, eventually commits suicide is utterly heartbreaking.
And finally, after a great summer trip to Norway, I came home, read all of Ibsen, and found myself laughing aloud and guiltily at the humour and strangeness of Peer Gynt, and realising that Grieg’s music for the play is not the sweet and light accompaniment I’d always thought it to be, but a sarcastic and sardonic take on Norwegian identity. In keeping with the marvellous darkness of Peer Gynt.