Best Books by Women

The best books by women of the 21st century

On International Women’s Day, writers and critics picked the best works by women since 2000. Claire Keegan’s work was chosen by three of them:

In honour of International Women’s Day, I exercise my right to choose more than one author for this article. Here are four wonderful books by Irish female writers published in the last decade: Claire Keegan’s Foster (2010), Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets (2015), Anne Enright’s The Green Road (2015) and Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s Twelve Thousand Days (2018). Foster is a beautifully observed story about a young girl sent to live with relations while her mother has yet another baby. McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs features stories from the margins, each of which captures the lonely voice of the short story form. The Green Road is the modern Irish family dissected with Enright’s trademark wit and intelligence – and a not so modern Irish mammy at the centre of it all. Ní Dhuibhe’s recent memoir on the life and death of her husband, the Swedish academic Bo Almqvist, is stark and moving and a masterclass in structure. On the international front, I’ll be an obedient little woman and pick only one book – Jade Sharma’s Problems (published by Tramp Press in 2018), a brutally funny tour-de-force about a New York heroin user in her 20s whose life is falling apart.
Sarah Gilmartin is arts journalist. She reviews debut fiction for The Irish Times

There is something risky about the way Claire Keegan in Walk the Blue Fields locates her stories in the private moments of Irish rural life, a setting of familiar and tropey grimness. These are the places that you see from train windows and wonder what the unsettling emptiness of the fields says about the happiness to be found there. It is the land of the big wedding, the country sergeant, the rueful priest, the dog in the yard, where nature is a workload and where people leave behind the people who feel left behind. But these are no set pieces. The stories are suspenseful and psychologically astute; the dialogue is not to be trusted; and the big decisions that characters make are mishandled, with the consequences aching over a lifetime. The unfinished business she attends to here so deftly is to bear witness and “lift the lid of silence” on the domestic injustices born by women everywhere who are abused and deprived of the love and opportunity they deserve.

Najla Jraissaty Khoury spent her time during the civil war in Lebanon touring with her theatre company in the refugee camps, air raid shelters and remote villages, visiting the very margins of a broken society under threat. There she spoke to the storytellers, the women who had preserved an age-old oral tradition from the preliterate era. She asked them about their favourite folk tales from childhood and made field recordings on tape from which the 30 tales in Pearls on a Branch, translated from Arabic by Inea Bushnaq, have been collected, verbatim, in this English translation from 2014.

These are stories told by women to women and largely about women. They are timeless morality tales in the spirit of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm, in which women often transcend their modest background using their wit and intelligence to prevail over inimical forces, both magical and worldly. While there are hallmarks of the Arabic storytelling tradition in the recurring invocation of God’s will and the self-effacing, self-doubting narrators, these stories involve universal themes recognisable from traditions across the world. The collection and translation of these stories is a singular achievement that deserves recognition from a wider Western readership.
Rónán Hession’s debut novel is Leonard and Hungry Paul

I’m a slow reader and I like to underline interesting phrases and ideas as I go; for this reason small books are most appealing to me. Foster by Claire Keegan is a perfect small book. Her poetic, rhythmic descriptions of rural Ireland are so wonderfully evocative you can smell the wet manure and turf fires, hear wheels slamming over cattle grids, the rough half-hearted barks of farm dogs. Told through the eyes of an observant child in new surroundings who is at first cautious then receptive of the unexpected kindness and attention she receives from her temporary carers, Foster is a beautiful and extremely moving story of childhood innocence and adult endurance. I’ve read it three times and the closing scene still makes me cry.

The year before last, I broke my small-book rule to embark on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s an astonishingly powerful and expertly written study of friendship, love and unimaginable suffering. Gripping from the outset, this is the sort of book that will force you away from social media and keep you up all night. My copy of A Little Life is almost unreadable now with its crisp, over-dried pages from the blissful hours I spent with it in the bath, utterly absorbed by its brilliance.
Julia Kelly’s latest book is Matchstick Man