Wednesday 25 April 2018

Books: Imagine John Lennon on his island in Mayo

Fiction: Beatlebone, Kevin Barry, Canongate, tpbk, 263 pages, €14.99

Pop fiction: Kevin Barry has invented a trip to Ireland for late Beatle John Lennon
Pop fiction: Kevin Barry has invented a trip to Ireland for late Beatle John Lennon

John Boland

In 1967, the year of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, John Lennon bought the 19-acre Dorinish island in Clew Bay for £1,700. Later, an Englishman called Sid Rawle, known as 'King of the Hippies', established a commune there, which was destroyed by fire in 1972.

Twelve years later, Lennon's widow Yoko Ono sold Dorinish for £30,000, giving the proceeds to an Irish orphanage, and recently the island, one of hundreds in Clew Bay and occasionally visited by Lennon devotees, has been up for sale again, though at a much higher price.

You'll find this information on the internet, but what you won't find is any mention of a journey Lennon made to the island in 1978. That's because Kevin Barry has invented it for his new novel, imagining a trip in which an emotionally fragile and creatively stalled Lennon seeks to confront both his past and the demons that lurk there.

This is a typically quirky notion from the author of two marvellous and justly acclaimed short-story collections and of a fantastical first novel, City of Bohane, which won a number of prizes, including the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2013.

Told mostly in short paragraphs, many of them amounting to no more than a sentence and each of them separated by double spacing, Beatlebone is the story of Lennon's "strangest trip" as he seeks to avoid the media and strikes up a bantering odd-couple alliance with local chauffeur Cornelius O'Grady, who have got wind of his visit.

"I really don't need a fucking circus right now," he tells Cornelius, who has just informed him that "half the newspapermen in Dublin are after piling onto the Westport train".

What follows, in story terms, is not an awful lot. On Achill, Lennon encounters a Rawle-like English guru conducting sessions of "the rants", which seem to be a version of the Primal Scream therapy the real Lennon had undertaken in California in the early 1970s. And there's also an encounter in a cave with a seal, with whom Lennon converses.

He also ruminates and agonises over a lost childhood, and especially the lost mother, Julia, about whom he wrote one of his loveliest and most poignant songs. This song, though, isn't mentioned in a novel that makes no reference to the Beatles or to Lennon's subsequent life and career in America.

Such omissions are, of course, the author's prerogative, though the effect is to make the reader wonder why Lennon, rather than a fictional tortured artist, was chosen as the book's central character. Certainly those who are unfamiliar with his achievements as a singer and songwriter will remain none the wiser by the end of this book.

Indeed, they may well lose patience with this crotchety and self-obsessed figure as he finds himself all at sea, both literally and figuratively, amid "the great dreariness that Ireland attempts to stay quiet about".

And while there's nothing dreary about Barry's prose, especially in his exhuberant depictions of landscape, the reader may also lose patience with the intrusion, 175 pages into the novel, of an "I" who may or may not be the author but who takes over the narrative for 30 pages before vanishing again.

He makes himself felt but it's unclear what he's doing there or why Barry felt his presence was required.

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