Emerald styles

Popular Irish women's fiction didn't exist 50 years ago, but now it dominates the bestseller lists. Kate Thompson reveals all about the sisterhood among her fellow Irish chick-lit novelists, and their patron saint, Maeve Binchy

Sunday 26 April 2009 00:00 BST

Women's fiction is a multimillion pound industry in the UK, and everyone in publishing is looking for that next woman with the Midas touch who can make readers care, laugh, cry and cheer; that woman who can make you think "That's exactly how I feel!" or "Don't let him talk to you like that!". It's not all about handbags, cocktails and Sex and the City frivolity. It's about warmth and empathy and getting that fuzzy feeling. Knowing that when you open the book you bought during your lunch break, it's guaranteed to take you to a place you really want to be, meeting characters you really want to know.

Penny Perrick – the former fiction editor of The Sunday Times – now leads an idyllic existence, running a bijou secondhand bookshop in the village of Roundstone on Ireland's west coast. She makes the interesting point that most of the women's commercial fiction she stocks is by UK and American writers, which would indicate that novels by Irish women are what is known as "keepers" – books that readers hang on to because they know they will read them again and again. It's a comfort thing.

I had a lovely fan letter recently, for my latest novel. It went like this: "Hi, just a note to say that I've just finished reading The Kinsella Sisters and how much I really enjoyed it. It made me think of summer, nice places, family and friends – all nice thoughts! Thank you."

Summer, nice places, family and friends... But it's not just the comforting, feel-good factor that makes Irish women such great storytellers. It's an instinctive quest for humour in darkness. Marian Keyes calls it "humour as a survival mechanism", and attributes our success to the fact that we are celebrating in writing how it feels to be enfranchised after centuries of second-class citizenship. We can be irreverent now: we can thumb our noses at the priests who abused us and the men who told us to shut up. And it's not simply an issue of content over form. Keyes also points out that our writing style is unique because – although the language we use is English – our voice is distinctly Irish. "The Irish revel in words," she says. "The rhythm and structure we use is different to the way English is spoken in the UK – it's baroque, colourful, quirky, conversational. It can sometimes even seem illogical, but the sense emerges in an entertaining, roundabout way." And that's because it's rooted in the tradition of tales told by those luckless shawlies sitting out the long winter evenings waiting for the shanachi to clamber over the hill. And when the shanachi didn't turn up, the shawlies told their tales for them, never dreaming that one day their storytelling skills might earn them a six-figure advance.

It's the skill that Maeve Binchy reinvented 25 years ago, and one that will hopefully be passed on to another generation, and another one after that. Maeve, we Irish women salute you. Now that our tongues have been loosened, may we go on sharing our stories with each other, our readers, our family and our friends, for as long as they choose to listen.

Kate Thompson is an actress and the bestselling author of 12 books. Her latest, 'The Kinsella Sisters', is published by Avon

The extract: The Kinsella Sisters By Kate Thompson Avon £6.99

"... Downstairs, there was evidence everywhere of last night's party. The deck was littered with a kind of picturesque debris – glasses and bottles glinting in the early morning sun ... flowers and half-burned candles ... and by the steps that led down to the garden was a pair of shoes. Red shoes, with heels ..."

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