Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

I can’t remember now how I came across the work of Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, but I am so glad that I did. Barry’s debut collection, There are Little Kingdoms won the Rooney prize in 2007, and his work has been subsequently shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards, including the Costa First Novel Award.

This collection from 2012 is blisteringly funny, outrageous and grotesque in almost equal parts but is also deeply compassionate.

He has hugely strong grip on dialogue, which is hopefully still accessible to non- sweary, non-Irish readers everywhere. The Fjord of Killary features the persona of a writing blocked poet who has bought a huge dilapidated hotel, poised precariously on the edge of Ireland’s only natural fjord. I haven’t checked if this is a real place. I have been too busy laughing at the horribly recognisable bar room conversations.

“They were listening , instead , to John Murphy , our alcoholic funeral director, “ the poet tells us .

‘ I’ll bury anythin ’ that fuckin ’ moves , ’ he said . ‘ Bastards , suicides , tinkers , ’ he said . ‘ I couldn’t give a fuckin ’ monkey’s , ’ he said .

On and on these inconsequential drunken conversations go as the rain falls and the water levels rise, until the writer’s epiphany :

“The waters were rising yet . And the view was suddenly clear to me . The world opened out to its grim beyonds and I realised that , at forty , one must learn the rigours of acceptance . Capitalise it : Acceptance . I needed to accept what was put before me – be it a watery grave in Ireland’s only natural fjord, or a return to the city and its greyer intensities , or a wordless exile in some steaming Cambodian swamp hole , or poems or no poems…”

Not all stories end with so positive a resolution, and many are mournful and hopeless, but almost always funny.

I particularly like the description of place in Wistful England,

“Leytonstone had the air of just the kind of place a dark turn might occur.”

Having lived in that part of the world, I am forced to agree and I recognise too the main character’s alcoholic housemates :

“They were Connemara men , with the look of bunched and tragic navvies , though all three of them worked in IT.”

I think I might have run into them in The Red Lion in the High Road.

Not all of the stories are as accomplished as the very best but every one of them yields something unforgettable, such as these perfect lines from Dr Sot :

“She threw down her serial killer novel and bounced up from the small pink sofa by the stove . ‘ You’ll never guess ! ’ she cried . ‘ He’s only taken the head and buried it in the desert ! ’

How I wish I had written that.

And his next collection is about country music. What could be better?

Dark Lies the Island is published by Vintage and available as an ebook.

There is also a Netflix film based on one of the stories sharing the same title.

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