These gripping novels are the perfect intense reads to capture your attention

Looking back now, the new novels of 2020 all had a sinister and dark tone to them — a prelude to the intense and scary times we are living in.

If you need a really haunting dark book to wrench your attention away from the news, this list is one to go by. Here’s what we have been delving into lately:

My Dark Vanessa

Kate Elizabeth Russell 

4th Estate

Out 10 March — pre-order here

Described by Irish writer Louise O’Neill as “the book everyone will be talking about in 2020” and by Stephen King as “a hard story to read and a harder one to put down”, this is an intense and disturbing read. It follows a woman named Vanessa Wye from Maine, who is now in her early 30s, but still caught up in her past. She was 15-years-old when she first fell in love with and had sex with her English teacher. 

Now, as he is accused of sexual abuse by another student of his, she watches as he is painted as a villain. She knows that what they had was love, she remembers every kind gesture and meaningful conversation. He saw her when no one else did. But it is now the year 2017, and as powerful men are being torn down by rape allegations, people around her want her to be upfront about her own ‘rape’. As the book shifts between 2000 to 2017, Vanessa examines what she considers to be the great love story of her life, and wonders what his professions of love really meant. This is a really uncomfortable look at the mind-games abusers play and the effects they have on victims.

Strange Hotel 

Eimear McBride

Faber & Faber

Out 6 February 

This challenging read delves into the inner thoughts of a woman moving from hotel room to hotel room around the world. The reader does not receive context, nor do we see her arrive at or leave the hotels, or know why she is travelling. We are thrust into her anguish as she overthinks every action and impulse. We’re stuck with her in the endless roundabout of thoughts flitting through her mind, with nothing notable in the impersonal hotel rooms to distract her.

Her attention dances around and around to avoid thoughts of her past and going home. She indulges in her desires and yet agonises in the aftermath, whether that’s drinking or going to bed with someone, only to kick them out coldly the next morning. The effort of not thinking about home and what she lost in the past seems to be what has let her become swallowed up by this strange, urgent and isolating routine. A story of loneliness and loss, told with an immersive, often frustrating, intensity. 

Running From The Shadows 

Stephanie Hickey 

Hachette Ireland

Out 6 February 

This non-fiction book manages to do something really impressive — finding hope in the darkest of times. Stephanie Hickey from Waterford alongside her sister were the victims in a devastating historical sexual abuse and rape case. Taking the brave step of waiving their anonymity to ensure the guilty party was named, this book sees Stephanie share the story of what happened to her as a teenager and how the case affected her. What really makes this book a must-read is seeing how Stephanie has worked to move past what happened, and how taking up running in her forties was transformative for her. Read more about Stephanie’s story in the March | April issue of Irish Country Magazine, out now.

Our Fathers 

Rebecca Wait 

Riverrun 

Out 23 January 

When Tom was just a boy, his father killed the rest of the family with a shotgun. The small island community is left shocked, and watch on as, after a traumatised childhood turned to troubled teen years, Tom departs from the island. No one expects him to return, not least his uncle Malcolm. But word spreads that Tom, who is the image of his father, has returned. The reunion is awkward and stunted as the men struggle to communicate, and the neighbours observing their every move have plenty of opinions too. His return brings questions that no one wants to answer, as Tom struggles with his own memories, guilt and fears, about the kind of man he is to be. 

Pine

Francine Toon

Doubleday Ireland

Out 23 January

There is a tense unease from the outset of this novel. Set in the forests of the Scottish Highlands, the story follows Lauren and her father Niall. Their life is simple and painfully quiet, as they mourn the disappearance of her mother a decade ago, and how it has marred their lives since. Her father drinks and feels guilty about everything, and she knows everyone whispers about her parents. When mysterious things start happening in their house, and those around her start acting strangely, Lauren starts to suspect her neighbours know more than they’re letting on. 

When a local teenager goes missing, no one knows who to trust, and the claustrophobia and sense of dread intensify. This story has a gothic, eerie feel. The weight of folklore and the intense gaze of neighbours is something Irish readers in rural villages will identify with, though this book feels and reads as authentically Scottish. The mystery, as it unravels, is intense as you really cannot predict whether what unfolds is the crime of man or ghostly creature. 

American Dirt 

Jeanine Cummins

Tinder 

Out 21 January

A Mexican woman finds her quiet, content world is torn asunder when in one act of violence 15 members of her family are murdered. She and her son miraculously survive, but are now on the run from the most dangerous cartel in Acapulco. This emotional read has the pace of a thriller, as she and her son must face the bleak and treacherous prospect of riding a Mexican freight train north to America. She and her precocious son meet characters on their journey who make them question their instincts, their safety and their humanity along the way. 

The story is gripping, yes, but problematic in its telling. The book has been swept up in a wave of controversy since before its release. Questions have been asked about the portrayal of migrants, and whether the author is appropriating their experience. It raises the question of who gets to tell what stories. Valid concerns, but it’s also true that the author is becoming a scapegoat for the sins of the wider industry. Controversy aside, the book is already a bestseller, and is being made into a film, and is certainly a conversation-starter. This clip from RTÉ Arena explains it quite well.

Three Hours 

Rosamund Lupton

Viking 

Out 6 January 

The staff and pupils of a modern and liberal school in rural England are horrified when a mysterious gunman opens fire. The book is told from various points of view, including those trapped in the school; the injured headmaster, unable to help his students and colleagues, the other teachers trying to distract their pupils from the horror lurking outside the doors, and a young Syrian refugee who is trying to find his younger brother in another part of the school. As the police grapple with wintry conditions, trying to identify the gunman and his accomplices, everyone involved in the siege wrestles with their own fears, their hopes for rescue, and how situations like this make you realise the importance of love, in all its forms.