Follow by Email

Monday, 3 June 2013


Kevin Barry's characters are outsiders, criminals, addicts in one way or another, intellectually challenged, society's outcasts. He seems to have an affinity with these people on the margins, the ones who are, for one reason or another, not part of regular society.

In this new book of short stories, Dark lies the Island, he takes us on a tour of the seedy, the sinister, the run-down, the criminal, the alcoholic. The characters are nearly all doomed, they are failures, have had bad luck, made bad choices, some of them are simply bad and toxic to society.

The most sinister story is called Ernestine and Kit. It is a simple tale about two elderly women who travel around Ireland's North-West. They are maiden-aunt-like, innocent-looking, one thin as a rake, the other plump and apparently kindly. Only that their hobby is kidnapping children. We never find out exactly what they do with them when they manage to nab one, but that just makes the story all the more creepy.

Then there is Beer Trip to Llandudno, which won the Sunday Times Short Story Award last year. It is easy to see why. It is a simple enough narrative about six friends who are members of a Real Ale Club, who travel from Liverpool to the Welsh town of the title for a day trip.

To themselves they are simply hobbyists, a group of friends out on a day trip just as others go hill-walking or rock-climbing. Soon though we see that the men all have a loss in their lives, and have filled their quiet desperation with beer and the companionship of their group.

When one of them meets an old flame in Llandudno, their delicate balance is disrupted.

The success of Beer Trip to Llandudno is the way Barry exploits the gap between appearances and reality, between the men's own image of themselves, and the sad reality of their lives.

Some of the stories are more successful than others. Wifey Redux is set in middle-class south Dublin, and describes the hostility of a father towards his daughter's boyfriend. But it is clumsily written and constantly strikes a wrong note. The story is just a heavy-handed attempt at satirising what Ross O'Carroll Kelly has done much better.

Some of the other stories are no more than snatches in time, little scenes involving one or two people where there is no real narrative, just a brief glimpse into someone's life. Snapshots that give the reader a tiny window into another person's existence, before fizzling out.

At times this works, at others this is just not enough. The stories are delicate, and self contained, but frequently limited, and often the writing is not strong enough to carry the slightness of narrative.

As with any short story collection there is a mixture of tales here. There are some that are forgettable, or else that just strike a wrong note, and disappear as soon as you have read them.

And yet others work perfectly, are touching, creepy, funny, and self-contained enough to be a little universe just on their own. The last story - Berlin Arkanoplatz, My Lesbian Summer - is one of these, a perfect capturing of a particular slice of the Berlin art world, and the illusions of a young Cork man who intersects with it.

What is always true, though, is Kevin Barry's ear for dialogue, and for being able to transcribe what Irish people actually say, and the way we use words when we speak.

People in his stories ask "What's it they call you?" when they want to know someone's name.

Ernestine and Kit, in discussing what they are going to have when they stop in a roadside cafe have the following exchange... "..would we chance a scone, Kit?". "It would hardly put us in the ground, Ernestine."

And that is the pleasure in reading Kevin Barry, to see and feel characters come richly to life in the space of a few pages, through the words that they say, and also what is left unsaid. 


  1. I'd like to read this actually. I heard a review of it on Radio 4 too and it seems to have been mostly well received. I've really started to enjoy reading short stories recently after picking up Ethan Coen's "Gates of Eden" in a charity shop. I think the art of the short story is a difficult one to master so I have respect for anyone who can do it well.

    1. Yeah, short stories are not easy to write, and sometimes not easy to read, if done badly. You can tell that Kevin Barry knows exactly what he is doing with a short story. What he is good at is putting a lot into the small space of the story.

  2. Having now read the book I have to say I agree with a lot of what you wrote in your review. I actually rather enjoyed Wifey Redux,though I haven't read Ross O'Carroll Kelly so I can't compare them.
    As you point out the dialogue is the real star in almost every story. He definitely has a gift for recognising and transcribing regional dialects artfully and beautifully.
    This gets a thumbs up!

    1. Yeah, for me a mixed bag. The sheer energy of the dialogue makes every story worth reading, but some of them seemed to me to be drafts of stories that should have been edited or discarded. The title story of the collection springs to mind in this regard.


Please comment here....