Adrian Duncan scoops inaugural John McGahern Annual Book Prize
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Adrian Duncan scoops inaugural John McGahern Annual Book Prize

THE winner of the inaugural John McGahern Annual Book Prize has been announced this weekend as writer Adrian Duncan.

Mr Duncan, who said he was “moved and proud” to win the first instalment of the new award - which has been launched by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and comes with a £5,000 prize pot - took the title for his debut novel Love Notes from a German Building Site.

His book was the favourite for the Prize judges, which included University Vice-Chancellor Dame Professor Janet Beer; Chancellor and author of Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín; Professor of Irish literature in English, Frank Shovljn; and The Irish Times fiction reviewer, Sarah Gilmartin.

Ms Gilmartin praised the “pitch perfect debut” for its “spare, exact prose”, and how it reveals “what it might mean to be Irish in the 21st Century”.

On learning of his success, Mr Duncan said: “I am very moved and proud to be awarded this wonderful book prize.

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“To be associated with John McGahern, a writer I have admired for so long, is an incredible honour.

“I owe much to my publisher, The Lilliput Press, for taking a chance on me and for their continued support. I would like to extend my gratitude also to the Institute of Irish Studies for bringing this prize into being.

“My thanks also to all of the judges, and particularly to Colm Tóibín, who had the difficult task of choosing the final book.”

Mr Tóibín said: “Love Notes from a German Building Site is written in spare, exact prose. Set mainly on a building site in Berlin, it captures the urgencies and exigencies of construction, as well as the close and strained personal relationships that develop between workers over time.

“Duncan writes beautifully about cold weather, gruff manners, systems of hierarchy. He also writes beautifully about precious time off, or the occasions when memory takes over.

“As well as being a portrait of work, this novel offers a picture of a sensibility – Paul, an Irishman in Berlin, conscientious, often uneasy, often bad-tempered, but ready to be transformed by his relationship with Evelyn, who travels with him, and by time spent in galleries.

“At the heart of the novel is the question of language, German as a set of signs, but also the world itself as a set of signs waiting to be interpreted by the protagonist, who is created in this book with an acute and painstaking emotional accuracy.”

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Professor Peter Shirlow, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, claims their inaugural prize winner managed to capture a “fascinating” real-world situation in his writing.

“The Institute is dedicated to how we present and promote Irish culture especially in terms of locating diversity and multifaceted meaning,” he said.

“Within that vein Adrian’s novel highlights how the nature of Irish identity is framed by many situations and contexts and here we have a wonderful piece of work about the apparently very ordinary life of an Irish structural engineer washed ashore from post-Crash Dublin onto a Berlin building project with a motley crew of fellow Irishmen, Germans, Ukrainians and Bulgarians. Capturing such a real-world situation is both fascinating and with merit.”

Professor Frank Shovlin, who is currently researching John McGahern’s work and correspondence for an edition of letters and an authorised biography, added: “A pitch perfect debut by a writer who never relies on exaggeration or contrivance of any kind.

“This is a book that will live long in my memory both as an evocation of the marvellous ordinariness of romantic love, of the absurd politics of the workplace, and of the overlap between our construction of language and that of our built environment.

“Any author capable of writing a gripping scene about drilling holes in concrete is entitled to take a bow. I have not enjoyed a novel this much in a very long time.”

The winner of the John McGahern Prize was selected after an open call for submissions for the inaugural prize from any Irish writer, or writer resident in Ireland for more than five years, for a debut work of fiction published in 2019.

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A final shortlist of four books (two novels and two short story collections) – Anne Griffin, When All is Said (Sceptre); Adrian Duncan, Love Notes from a German Building Site (Lilliput); Lucy Sweeney Byrne, Paris Syndrome (Banshee); and Nicole Flattery, Show Them a Good Time (The Stinging Fly) – was announced in April.

The University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies was established in 1988, and remains the only one of its kind in Great Britain.

The Prince of Wales and President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins are joint patrons of the Institute, symbolising the significant role it plays in the political and cultural life of both islands.