Saturday, 17 November 2012

Dark Lies the Island

Dark Lies the Island - Kevin Barry

Before I begin this review first I have to thank Rob at robaroundbooks.com for I won my copy of Dark Lies the Island as a prize during the Edinburgh Book Festival. His thoughts on this, far more comprehensive than mine, are here. I was eager to acquaint myself with his work for there is a buzz attached to his name and I have had a few recommendations for his novel City of Bohane. Also, one of the stories was set as a reading exercise in the writing/reading course that I have been doing with novelist Keith Ridgway. (Hawthorn and Child)

This is a collection of thirteen short stories set among Irish emigrants in Britain and Berlin, real ale drinkers on a train to Llandudno, a hotel in the west of Ireland, a traveller settlement in rural Ireland and elsewhere. I approached it with high expectations, and a certain wariness of how high expectations can damage the experience of reading. And I have to admit that some stories did pass me by without leaving much of an impression. However, even these were easy to read and there are a few stories here that feel like they will repay multiple readings.

Across the Rooftops
In which Barry stretches out some tentative tentacular moves amoung the detritus of a post party rooftop as night slowly turns to day. He pulls the slight story out like a child with a vintage Curly Wurly bar (the new ones just don't have the elasticity).
A real sense of the huge importance of the profoundly trivial in the world of immediate post-teenagerhood.
 "..you may be looking at the man who introduced Detroit techno to the savages of Cork city."

Wifey Redux
For Irish readers, this reads a little like a Ross O'Carroll Kelly tale, from a different angle. We witness the unravelling of a Southside Dad when his daughter starts dating one of the "rugby boys". Hints are dropped that all is not paradisiacal in this particular Eden and it looks like our particularly unreliable narrator may be heading for "a bweakdown-type thing again?", in the words of his Pinot-Grigio quaffing wife.
"I was pretty much unsackable, unless I whipped out a rifle in the canteen or raped somebody in the photocopier room."

Fjord of Killary
A poet buys an old hotel in the West of Ireland and stands behind the counter wiping up the slops and surveying "the most depressing mountain you've ever seen". In a world where it rains "two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year" it's not surprising that every now and again the rainwaters rise above the threshold. With the waters comes some subterranean activity, brought into the open, and also, perhaps, some poetry.

"I'll bury anythin' that fucking moves" - John Murphy "alcoholic funeral director."

A Cruelty
Donie is a slave to his routine, and anything outside it causes him great distress. Trains leaving late, the wrong biscuits, anything can cause the "stabs of anxiety". There's a touch of fantasy about this one as the trains seem to keep to the timetable. But Donie's day gets thrown out of synch by An Encounter.

Beer Trip to Llandudno
A group of Real Ale enthusiasts on a day trip to Llandudno. Like Donie in A Cruelty, these men, in the main, like to have things mapped out for them. But no matter how carefully you plan an itinerary there is always the chance that the past will interrupt, and sometimes bitter isn't only something on tap. This is one of my favourites in this collection. The obsessive quest for the perfect pint and for the perfect points system with which to record it allows Barry to quietly slip in other observations.
"when Real Ale Club boys parade down hospital wards, we tend to draw worried glances from the whitecoats."

Ernestine and Kit
A pair of prissy old maids comment on the unsuitability of people of a certain class to be parents, and how they don't take proper care of their children. Ernestine and Kit would take proper care of them.
"Ernestine was big, with the high colour of a carnivore.."

The Mainland Campaign
The late eighties, Camden loch and a young lad from Tipperary feels right at home amoung the goths, the rockabillies and the acid-house kids. These are his type. If only he could find a girl. But he has some issues, mostly to do with his mother's involvement with the IRA, or IRA men. A tongue in cheek moral fable on the dangers of frustration, and of metaphorical ejaculations.
"He was in love with every girl on the Northern line as it aimed for Camden."

Wistful England
Daniel has emigrated to London and emigrates further daily into a fug of drunkenness and dope. He is driven there by the memory of a girl. He sees her in girls everywhere.
I thought of John Lee Hooker.

Doctor Sot
Another character, this time a doctor who has visions, struggles through a haze of alcohol.

The Girls and the Dogs
Locked in a caravan which had originally been a refuge but was now a prison, our hero has an epiphany: "I have never had religion or spiritual feelings but lying there in that caravan in the farmyard outside Gort I knew for sure there was no God but there was surely a devil."

White Hitachi
Patrick has to collect his brother Tee-J from juvie. Then they have to go borrow money from Doggie 'the dog' Mannion. "The Dog was a large, half-bald, buttery kind of man with terrible nerves. He had the eyeliner on in thick black smudges over a deep-tan foundation like a hoor would wear." Things ain't looking up.

Dark Lies the Island
Another story where the father/daughter relationship takes centre stage as a brilliant young girl taking a year out before college stays in a glass house designed by her "radical architect" father. She cuts, and has an eating disorder and can't sleep. Chat rooms, messages from The Beatles and text messages from her mother and father impel this story towards its conclusion.
"There was no internet at the holiday home except for dial ups, as though powered by a hamster on a wheel, and it made her want to retch it was so slow."

Berlin Arkonaplatz - My Lesbian Summer
"Patrick, I am going to teach you everything you need to know about the female genitalia."
This is a paean to Silvija, a girl who led the narrator by the hand into the demi-monde of the Berlin fashion scene. She relaxes her lesbianism for a while to have a relationship with the narrator who, (he tells us), she felt to be "the culmination of Irish literature."
The narrator here most resembles Barry. He spends his time "writing lurid short stories." There is some great stuff on his Irish heritage: "They had not come to adulthood in rooms laid with unpleasantly diamond-patterned carpets bought off the travellers at the markets of drab Irish towns" and on the demi-monde too.
Like the first story this hinges on the moment when he can sense the end of the affair, when the physical presence starts to be transmuted into an imaginative one.
This reminded me of Breakfast at Tiffanys, without the innuendo.
It's my favourite story in the collection and has a line which may explain the almost casual way Barry's stories can pass on first reading: "I was finding out how carelessly life might be lived."
This book is a compendium of carelessly lived lives.


  1. Hi Seamus,
    I'm delighted that your first foray into the wonderful world of Kevin Barry has been a good one. I am surprised though that your most liked story in the collection is my least favourite. Then again, I suppose it's a clear illustration of how much tastes vary.

    Now, I know you've been recommended to read 'City of Bohane', but more than this I urge you to read Barry's first collection 'There Are Little Kingdoms'. For an Irishman I would imagine this would appeal to you much more, mainly because every story is firmly set in Ireland, and oozes every colour of the Emerald Isle. You'll love it more than 'Dark Lies...', I'm sure.
    P.S. Thank you for the mention, and the link love. It was an absolute pleasure gifting you this collection.

    1. VERY LATE REPLY! I'll have to purchase There are Little Kingdoms, especially as I didn't have to pay for Dark Lies... As an Irishman who spent some time in Berlin maybe there are reasons I am drawn to the final story.

  2. Hi Seamus

    I', part way through City of Bohane. It was one of those books that i initially struggled with (I'm always a bit wary of over stylised use of language and find myself thinking "just get on with the story") however something clicked anfter about 50 pages in and it has me hooked enough to get me to the finish line