Review: Short Stories: Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
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Published 08/04/2012 | 06:00
Kevin Barry is 42 and he was first published five years ago, so he can't quite be described as enjoying "overnight success".
But the Limerick-born author who now lives in Sligo has had the kind of week all writers dream about: fortune and glory, on a number of fronts, following the sort of critical praise that suggests he might be the king-in-waiting of Irish literature.
Last weekend Barry captured the world's most valuable short story prize, the EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, worth £30,000 (€36,000). (This works out at roughly £5 per word!) He was presented with the prize by one of the judges, novelist Joanna Trollope, at the Oxford Literary Festival.
Last weekend also, Barry's acclaimed first novel, City of Bohane, had its US release, and its author was the cover star of the New York Times books section, which gave it a glowing review. (It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award when it appeared on this side of the Atlantic last year.)
And with nice timing, this Thursday his third book Dark Lies the Island (a second collection of stories after his Rooney Prize-winning collection There Are Little Kingdoms, in 2007) was published here.
By any yardstick, it's been an extraordinary week for Barry. In the eyes of many, he has emerged as the leading post-Banville generation Irish writer. So, is he heir apparent to John Banville, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, et al?
He certainly seems ideally placed. Barry's fiction is fiercely individual and authentic, with great imagination and a firm grasp on the mechanics of a story.
Above all, there is incandescent use of language. His prose is almost literally indescribable; this means it won't be to everyone's taste, but it's not hard to see a devoted following accrue around this singular talent.
But don't take our word for it: critically, Barry can do no wrong. Dark Lies the Island is adorned with borderline-hyperbolic encomiums from Roddy Doyle and Joseph O'Connor.
At the awards ceremony, Melvyn Bragg praised Barry's story, Beer Trip to Llandudno, for its "wit, pathos and great energy". Hanif Kureishi described it as "sweet, funny and unexpectedly moving . . . beautifully constructed . . . astonishing . . . daringly original".
Beating off the likes of Emma Donoghue, Beer Trip to Llandudno is spectacularly good. The narrative is in the title: a bunch of "real ale" fans from Liverpool go on a train trip to the Welsh town to sample different brews.
It's fantastic: by turns comedic, wistful, boisterous, warm-hearted, almost picaresque but fundamentally real. It reads like something Graham Green might have written in an unusually good mood.
I must confess that, up to now, I've remained agnostic on Barry. There Are Little Kingdoms seemed to try too hard with its demented Irish gothic tales. City of Bohane, although a whirligig of linguistic virtuosity, left you wondering how much substance lay beneath the style.
Now, though, consider me converted: Dark Lies the Island really is very good. Thirteen stories which grab your attention from the start: not always easy in shorter works, and without coming across as gimmicky.
Barry does it with admirable unfussiness and lightness of touch -- one or two sentences, an arresting turn of phrase, are all that's needed. And once the reader is hooked, you're kept hooked.
Much short fiction is about mood and tone, oblique reflections, and nothing wrong with that. But Barry, while also fulfilling those obligations, keeps you engaged with twists, red herrings, imaginative detours, narratives uncoiling like a snake: you don't know whether you'll get bitten until the end is reached.
The language, as already mentioned, is wonderful. There's true poetry here: surprising turns of phrase or gratifyingly odd juxtapositions of words which can seem somehow wrong, at first, to the mind's eye, but then reveal their beauty.
The prose flows like the best late-night pub conversation you ever had, but always with quality control: anything that reads this well was hard-earned.
A few quibbles: do Irish people really use the F-word in its sexual sense as frequently as here? Also, it would have been nice to see more upbeat, even happy stories.
The tone ranges from disgust to hysteria to regret to sheer terror; not a lot of lightness, though it's often very funny. I appreciate that conflict is central to great drama, but life is defined as much by moments of banal contentment as the horrific, extreme or melancholy. But only a few: on the whole, I loved Dark Lies the Island.
Some stories more than others, of course, and funnily, Fjord of Killary isn't among the former. This appeared in the prestigious New Yorker magazine in 2010; I found it well-written but somehow unsatisfying.
Much better were Across the Rooftops, which beautifully evokes memories of youthful romance and miscommunication; The Mainland Campaign, a gripping story about an IRA bomb plot in London; and Ernestine and Kit, a creepy tale about a pair of child-snatchers, with an ending so harrowing it lodges in the mind.
Is Barry the new Banville? If and when he fully brings these rich gifts to bear on a longer-form work, the answer will undoubtedly be yes.
Darragh McManus's crime novel Even Flow is published this autumn by Roundfire Books.