Top 10 Northern Irish novels | fiction

Northern Ireland has been something of a hotspot for TV drama and comedy over the last few years. Crime shows such as The Fall and The Secret have drawn huge audiences, Derry Girls has been a worldwide hit, and even Game of Thrones made use of the landscape. Cinema has also given us compelling stories about this tiny country, with Good Vibrations and ’71 shedding new light on the Troubles. With the arrival of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning ode to his childhood home, is Northern Ireland finally finding its storytelling voice?

Well, no. Northern Ireland has always had a voice, and we’ve never been short of storytellers. The challenge has been finding someone to listen. What follows should not be taken as a best-of list, but as a chronological overview of our contribution to the literary world. The Troubles loom large over many of these stories, of course, but recent years have seen a divergence of our literature and the conflict that has defined us for so long. Each book here says something about where we’ve been and where we’re going, and each one deserves your attention.

1. Odd Man Out by FL Green
The basis for Carol Reed’s classic film noir of the same name, Odd Man Out (1945) follows an IRA man’s last hours after he is mortally wounded during a bungled robbery. It is a nightmarish tour of post-second world war Belfast as Johnny McQueen searches desperately for help in a city of betrayal. Everyone wants something from him, but no one is willing or able to give him what he really needs: a safe place to die.

James Mason in Carol Reed’s 1947 film adaptation of Odd Man Out. Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/Two/Sportsphoto/Allstar

two. Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard
Lingard’s bestselling teen romance from 1972 seemed ubiquitous when I was growing up in Northern Ireland, largely because of its many years of inclusion on school syllabuses. Published in the early years of the Troubles, it remained for some time as one of the only novels for young people in Northern Ireland to reflect their own daily lives.

3. Cal by Bernard MacLaverty
MacLaverty’s 1983 novel is one of the touchstones of Troubles fiction. The titular protagonist’s obsession with the widow of the police officer he helped murder plays out as a kind of twisted love story. Riven with guilt and trapped by circumstance, Cal is buffeted from all sides by forces he ca n’t control, meaning his eventual fate comes as a perverse salvation.

Four. Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman
Bateman’s 1995 debut is a darkly comic thriller that skewers the ridiculous confluence of politics, sectarianism, and gangsterism that sustained conflict for so many years. No one is safe from the author’s cynical eye, and he manages to capture the morbid humor that kept Northern Ireland going through its darkest times.

5. Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty
McKinty may be better known these days for his award-winning Sean Duffy series, and his international bestseller The Chain, but his 2003 debut paved the way for the wave of Northern Irish noir that followed. While it’s largely set in New York, it qualifies for this list by dint of its lethal protagonist, Michael Forsythe, and his distinctly Northern Irish view of the world.

6. Country by Michael Hughes
A retelling of the Iliad set in the Irish borderlands in the dying days of the Troubles might sound like hard work, but Michael Hughes’ 2018 novel somehow manages to be relentlessly entertaining. It also pulls off the feat of being told entirely in local vernacular while remaining smoothly readable. Country is an outstanding achievement on many levels.

Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Booker prize.
Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Booker prize. Photograph: Ray Tang/REX/Shutterstock

7. Milkman by Anna Burns
To view the Troubles as only being about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is reductive. Class strife played an enormous role in igniting sectarian violence here, but gender – specifically toxic masculinity – supplied a good amount of the kindling. Burns’ 2018 Booker prize winner cuts to the bone of the fragile male ego’s need for domination and its use of violence to achieve it.

8. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
Carson, like many other Northern Irish writers, delves into the shadow of past on present, but also uniquely explores the border between fantasy and reality in her 2019 novel. Like Milkman a year before, The Fire Starters mercilessly pierces the thin skin of toxic masculinity and its compulsion to violence, its drive to solve problems with flame or blade. The novel is also notable for honestly portraying the loyalist experience, a community often ignored in fiction, or worse, caricatured as a knuckle-dragging monolith.

9. The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway
Although McGilloway has been a mainstay of the Northern Irish crime fiction scene for more than a decade, 2020’s The Last Crossing may be his masterpiece. While it does work as a slow-burn thriller, where it really shines is as a study of guilt, memory and friendship. As the three protagonists journey across the Irish Sea to the Scottish burial ground of a murder victim, past and present blur and overlap until all that remains is the truth.

10. Who Took Eden Mulligan? by Sharon Dempsey
There has been much discussion in recent years about how to address the legacy of the Troubles. There will never be a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission because no one will ever tell the truth about what they did. The job therefore falls to writers like Sharon Dempsey whose 2021 novel, like The Last Crossing, layers timelines to build an honest picture of our past and present.

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