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Review: The City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

With one collection of short stories to his name (2007's Rooney Prize-winning There Are Little Kingdoms) Kevin Barry still had to deliver a debut literary opus, something loud and cocky to make good on the promise he has shown so far.

The City of Bohane is his first novel proper and with it he makes a bold statement, not only about his considerable talent but also his plot to upend the realm of modern Irish literature with a work of such singular scope and voice that it is bound to be the talk of book circles this year and possibly beyond.

Life takes a variety of forms in Barry's dimension. The titular city itself is a writhing, agonising animal, a 2053 Connacht dystopia which is hard to imagine a path towards from today's Ireland. Technology has been eschewed and society has regrouped into tribes and clans. They observe dress codes and follow a cut-throat etiquette in their search for dominance over Bohane.

Logan Hartnett is leader of the prominent and aptly vicious gang the Hartnett Fancy. Returning from a 25-year exile is Gant Broderick, his past-his-prime nemesis who is looking to take back what is his, which includes Logan's wife Macu. Among the numerous "grog pits", opium dens and smut houses of Bohane's Smoketown district (a map is provided inside the back cover), a roiling collection of ne'er-do-wells fill in the gaps.

There's the Hartnett henchmen Wolfie Stanners and F***er Burke, the "fat newsman" Dom Gleeson and the vampish and treacherous Jenni Ching. All, including Logan's iron-fisted but bed-ridden mother Girly, may or may not be out to do him over, not that he doesn't have it coming. All the while, in the Northside Rises, the rival Cusack gang is launching a bid for power, which will result in a citywide feud.

The grime and dread are burned into the reader's imagination by way of recurring waves of description, almost song-like in their woozy tones. Nothing is explained about how our proud nation ends up descending into the piratical anarchy and peculiar fashion of Bohane in a mere 40 years, but the suspicion is a climatic disaster (references are made to the "sweltering" springtime and treacherously cold winds and winters). Automobiles are mentioned as things from days of yore. Out beyond the city lies the Big Nothin', an unforgiving and desolate bog, while the ocean is referred to as "the Black Atlantic". You get the picture.

Barry achieves much within this limited colour scheme. His language is startling, somehow a physical presence. It coils and releases itself or grooves hypnotically before breaking into a frantic spasm of description or dialogue. A particularly Irish brand of gallows humour runs amok throughout, so laughter is often elicited in ominous scenarios. The gears in your brain are being shifted around and you're enjoying the feeling.

His touchstones -- The Wire, Gangs of New York, the low-life blues yarns of Island-era Tom Waits, etc -- are unhidden. Hiberno-English is bastardised fully in the speech of the Bohanians, with Baltimore street slang and the leering lilt of The Rubberbandits coming together to bemusing effect. Our narrator reins this in but, as he glacially reveals, he too is a proud inhabitant of Bohane and sometimes forgets himself by slipping back into the street-creole.

Like David Simon's landmark HBO series, a few conversations must be sat through before the lingo becomes fully decipherable. But also like that series, it is this commitment required of the reader, this decision made early on to get on board or not that means The City of Bohane is a book that can't be half-read.

It's doubtful that anyone will look back on The City of Bohane for its innovative plot structure or wry commentary on life. Instead, it will maintain an evergreen blossom borne out of its author's uncanny way with his language. It will go on to teach valuable lessons to Barry's successors, reminding them of the places the written word can bring you to and that there is always beauty to be eked out of dark and sinister corners of human existence.

Those people who harbour ambitions to write a book are usually made to reassess things when writers like Kevin Barry pop up on the radar. As of this book's publication, he is a game-changer, someone who will perch annoyingly at the back of the minds of Irish literature's up-and-comers whispering "must try harder".

Incredibly, The City of Bohane isn't even his career-defining masterpiece -- that, you can rest assured, is on the way -- and may struggle to secure an audience outside of Ireland and the UK. As a declaration of intent, however, it's impossible to ignore.

Sunday Indo Living