This week, the Irish Book Awards shortlist was announced. I love lists. I particularly love book-award lists. But in the last couple of years, I’ve been finding them slightly depressing, because of a glaring omission. Earlier this year, I read Hellfire by Mia Gallagher and I consider it to be one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, raw, gritty, powerful and original in its narrative structure. It’s also that rare thing in this day and age – a rattling good yarn that continues an ancient Irish storytelling tradition. But even though the cover is plastered with plaudits from critics, it has escaped the attention of awards panels. And it has appeared on no lists for Irish Book of the Decade.
Earlier this year, critics were railing against the fact that none of the heavy-hitting Irish authors were dealing with contemporary Ireland. If they were doing their jobs, they would have known that Hellfire does just that. It’s about Lucy Dolan, who grows up in the Dublin badlands and becomes sucked into an underworld of crime and drugs. The action centres on a night at the Hellfire Club in the Dublin mountains, which ends in tragedy. Haunted by this tragedy, Lucy spends most of the novel attempting to redeem herself.
This is a character growing up in 80s, 90s and noughties Ireland, at the coalface of all that is wrong withour society and she is not getting the recognition she deserves.
So what the hell is wrong with Hellfire
- It’s a gangland novel that isn’t a crime novel. It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre, in a world where eveyr book has to have a label. That makes it harder to market to the audience who read crime novels and who read literary fiction.
- Spiky language. It’s written in Dublin-speak. To me, this rings true and authentic; Lucy grew up in Dublin’s inner city and never left. But some people may find this a barrier to engaging with the story.
- It pulls no punches. This book gets down and dirty. It doesn’t shy away from the depravity and evil that the rest of us would prefer to ignore. The descriptions of drug use are pretty hairy. But this is part of the book’s raw power.
I believe the overlooking of Hellfire symbolises the failings within the book publishing and critiquing world, a world that ignores books that don’t fit into the neat boxes assigned by marketing departments and advertisers. It’s about time the book world embraced books that don’t fit the mould.