‘Exuberant, risk-taking, exhilarating prose’ – Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry

Go ahead and read this collection and then draw a line under your short-story year; Barry’s got it covered. He’s already picked up thirty grand worth of kudos for just one-thirteenth of Dark Lies The Island (“Beer Trip to Llandudno” walked this year’s Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award) and, seriously, I dare you not to cower in his shadow. This is the reigning Mack Daddy of the form. We’ve already touched on, and loved, a couple of anthologized pieces from the new book here and here, and the rest certainly doesn’t fall short.

If you haven’t read Barry before, expect the unconventional. He says he writes from the ear, and his sentence structure captures an Irish idiom that might take a bit of getting used to, for those of you not already trained to it (I read a few reviews of City of Bohane which weren’t keen on the use of dialect), but it’s worth sticking with. He’s musical and foul-mouthed, melancholy and savagely funny. The stories range from horror to comedy to near-tragedy, but he never does maudlin: there’s an oft-unwarranted and gleeful optimism in the midst of his characters’ dreadful lives that makes you grin to read. And there’s a rush to his tales: you (I) get swept away in them. I could have read this in its entirety in a single intense day, but I kept forcing myself putting the book down, savouring that rare enough sense of leaving a treat for later on.

Let’s look at “Beer Trip” first, as it’s the story in the spotlight: a middle-aged crew of real ale fanciers go on a club outing from Liverpool to Llandudno, and the day and their talk and their slow-revealed histories are knotted into as humane a portrayal of male friendship as I can remember reading. One of these lads has had a testicle removed; another meets his teenage sweetheart and it ends badly; the narrator ponders his ex-girlfriend and his new life in Liverpool. Some snippets: “when Real Ale Club boys parade down hospital wards, we tend to draw worried glances from the whitecoats. We are shaped like those chaps on the warning illustrations on cardiac charts.” “At services, missus told me I was an idle lardarse who had made my life hell and she never wanted to see me again. We’d only stopped off to fill the tyres.” “The town was in carnival: Tropic of Lancashire in a July swelter.” There’s simultaneously an economy and a breadth of scale here that exemplifies how the very best short stories work: multiple lives in a mere scarcity of pages.

It’s followed immediately by “Ernestine and Kit”, the type of story that makes me want to retreat, with my family, from the world, to live in a sealed bunker. The titular ladies are middle-aged would-be child abductors, roaming the midlands of Ireland for a toddler to steal, and passing the time by commenting on the attire and behaviour of everybody they come across in the meantime. “’The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?’” “’Are you watching,’ Ernestine said, ‘the creature with the head?’” Comedy aside, the breathless speed and glee with which they descend upon their victims is awful, and Barry doesn’t explain their motives, so there’s the chilling opportunity for speculation. The story has a particular nightmare-ish quality that’s like a cross between Roald Dahl’s The Witches and, maybe, the murderous pair from Capote’s In Cold Blood.

The opening two pieces, “Across the Rooftops” and “Wifey Redux”, are the stories, respectively, of a student love-affair that never sparks (”the kiss did not take”), and of a father’s breakdown that’s disguised as the story of his daughter’s infatuation with an unworthy young man – one of the rugby boys “with their big shiteater grins and testosterone.” There’s a wistful, gently sad, realism to these two that’s abruptly shattered in the third tale, “Fjord of Killary” ( Killary being a place where “it rained two hundred and eight-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood-swings.”). This one is apocalyptic and wild: a desperate poet buys an isolated hotel that subsequently floods, trapping him with a coterie of locals and his surly Belarusian summer staff, as the waters rise. But here’s Barry’s optimism: the experience inspires the poet. ”I felt a new, quiet ecstasy take hold. The gloom of youth had at last lifted.”

A quick sampling of a few of the rest: “Doctor Sot” stars a dissolute old medic who gets in with a crowd of New Age travellers, while his wife waits at home (“Dear Sal – her gown, her grin, her mad thyroidal eyes”). The title story is about a self-harming teenage girl who finds hope on the Mayo coast (“The night about was breathing, unwebbed, darkscreened”). “White Hitachi” finds two brothers evading the law and working out a fraught relationship with one another (“There was poison and rage in the half-eejit and he hadn’t licked the off the ground.”) You could take random snatches of any story in this collection and come up golden. There’s nothing here to fault.

Any Cop?: This is exuberant, risk-taking, exhilarating prose. Don’t be put off by its idiosyncrasies; revel in them. Barry’s reputation is growing by the year, and deservedly so. And unless he’s got a Special Bonus edition of Dark Lies The Island stashed away in the Irish midlands, I don’t think I’ll read a better collection this year.

Valerie O’Riordan

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