Monday 20 November 2017

Review: Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry

Jonathan Cape, £12.99


There were ripples of approval when Kevin Barry scooped the Rooney Prize in 2008 for his debut short-story collection There Are Little Kingdoms. Scribes such as Irvine Welsh, and Roddy Doyle stepped forward to cheer. Last year, the wild, acrobatic prose of City Of Bohane hit the shelves, nabbed a Costa nomination and sold commendably here and in the UK.

Barry's crossover is more or less complete with the arrival of this second short-story collection. He is now Ireland's eminent "rock-star author", as comfortable talking to Hot Press about LSD and The Smiths as he is receiving backslaps from Melvyn Bragg and Hanif Kureishi for Beer Trip to Llandudno (for which he pocketed £30,000 along with The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award).

He's never made any bones about wanting to be a "big" author, and his plan may yet work out (the film optioning of Bohane won't hurt). A measure of this confidence comes in Berlin Arkonaplatz -- My Lesbian Summer, where a particularly thinly veiled protagonist reflects: "She had informed me quietly that I was a genius. She told me that I was the culmination of Irish literature."

Somewhat less charged than Bohane, these tales of misfits, loveable ne'er-do-wells and hapless losers savouring small but key victories shimmer with vibrancy. They're also funny. Laugh-out-loud, put-the-book-down funny.

The backdrop for most of these fables is a kind of Frankenstein take on Ireland. His years as a reporter at Limerick District Court, essaying all sorts of miscreants and misdemeanours, resound in this world of foreboding tinkers' yards, high-speed chases through Roscommon villages and "disgracefully grey skies".

He's always taken dark pleasure in surreptitiously tipping a reader off balance, but the technique is now that bit more macabre. In Ernestine and Kit, two ruthless kiddie-snatchers are packaged as tally-ho old dears on a Sunday drive in the countryside. You'll laugh but feel slightly guilty for doing so.

The textures are typical Barry, but tonally he's more versatile. In Berlin Arkona-platz, he penetrates the German city better than most travel writers, despite an economy of language.

Mischief is never far away. Those who harbour dreams of relocating to the west of Ireland for a new life should avoid Fjord Of Killary. But even its disaster-strewn yarn about an out-of-his-depth hotelier ends up glowing with redemption.

The "culmination of Irish literature"? Not quite, but the "genius" bit may be harder to argue with.

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