The Short Version: A collection of cloudy, slightly dark Irish tales – stories of drinkers, lovers, losers, and a few who might be something else entirely…
The Review: Kevin Barry’s first novel, City of Bohane, has been on my radar for a little while, although I’ve consciously passed it over a few times. But I was lucky enough to (long after the time had passed) come upon a copy of Powell’s Indiespensable #37 (a novel called Familiar) – which included a well-in-advance-of-pub-date copy of this winning little collection. I’m now deeply interested in getting to Barry’s novel.
The collection feels a bit slight but all of the tales feel perfectly pitched – there’s no fat on any of them and they fill you up even when they only clock in at ten or so pages. Each one of them feels unique and vibrant in its own special way, united not by a common location even but simply the sense of slight darkness that infuses each of them. That darkness might come in the form of mental illness or sadness, of some truly creepy occult-type stuff, or even literal darkness: my favorite piece in the collection, “Fjord of Killary”, sees a massive storm come in on the coast and bring an almost apocalyptic darkness to a small seaside hotel.
The most remarkable thing to be found in the collection is Barry’s voice. He’s as comfortable capturing the awkward pangs of young lust (the collection-opening “Across the Rooftops” is painfully accurate in its depiction of how your brain can ruin a moment) as he is writing of middle-aged men and women whose awkwardness comes from facing down the last half of their lives. They all feel real and not, as so often happens, like one type of character is more realistic than another. They all share a wry humanity that makes for damn good reading.
There’s a bit of the Weird here, too – although it stays somewhat under wraps, somewhat just-implied. A Roald Dahl-esque twist in one of the stories takes some old-age pensioners and turns them into horrific child snatchers while two other stories feature some unusual goings-on involving magic/the occult. It’s the sort of implied mysticism that served Jez Butterworth so well with his play Jerusalem – The British Isles are old and the sense that they hold powers that predate our understanding is an easily tapped source of inspiration, both in fiction and in life. I could see Mr. Barry turning quite well to a collection of truly scary tales – perhaps for some Halloween sometime.
He also does reality-scary quite well, too, though. Whether its worrying about money or a lost love, our minds can be scary places. The title story, which comes near the end (and, for my money, should’ve been the collection-closer), is a heartbreaking example of just how scary one’s own mind can be. It deals with the psychology and thoughts of a self-harmer in a way I’ve never really read before and it brought a tear to my eye.
A handful of stories don’t quite pack the punch that others do or they turn over already-well-treaded turf. None of them are bad – far from it – but for a collection as slight as this one (clocking in at under 200 pages, despite holding 13 stories) and for one that has so many really lovely gems, the few ‘meh’ stories do feel like a bit of a drag. Thankfully, they’re spaced throughout and so there’s bound to be an excellent one on either side.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A strong collection of stories, soaked in Irish lore (and all soaked in at least a drink or two) and in the actual physical land Barry calls home. It’s gotten me quite interested in reading the rest of his work and I look forward to his novel, his other collection of stories, and to many more tales in the future.