Following his acclaimed novel, City of Bohane, Kevin Barry’s second short story collection, Dark Lies the Island, is one of the most-anticipated books of the year. So, does it live up to expectations?
Kevin Barry’s first short story collection was notable for its numerous tales of ordinary people living with the consequences of foolish decisions: amnesiac alcoholics, petty criminals, and inept cheating spouses. His next book, the novel City of Bohane, imagined a noirish future Ireland as a perpetual gangland feud, a hiberno Godfather that invented a memorable world of catchy slang and colorful warring tribes. His latest book, Dark Lies the Island, a new collection of stories, sees the author explore a wider range of settlings and socio-economic situations. Roughly speaking, the first half of the book sees Barry successfully walk the tightrope between mere oddness for oddness sake (because he’s been there, seen it, done it, and as a reader, who wants to keep reading variations on the same theme?), and stories that are more than memorable character studies. The opener, “Across the Rooftops,” is a delicious funny and poignant piece that shows a hapless man forever on the point of making his move on a woman he’s been getting to know. As he over-thinks the situation terribly, we can’t look away from the train wreck of a proposition, and know he’s turning success into failure by the second. It’s a situation that can cause us all to wince with recognition, and reflect that our own rejections were not so bad after all. At first, the story reads like another character study, a direct extension of his first book, but then Barry subtly switches gears and the story closes with a light reflection on aging, the liveliness of youth giving way to the disappointment of middle age:
“I sat there until all that had been about us had faded again to nothing, until the sound of the crowd died and the music had ended, and we all trailed home along the sleeping streets, with youth packed away, and life about to begin.”
This acknowledges the narrator’s failed seduction, suggests a future history of failure with women, and also the Irish desire to put off growing up as long as possible, to make life one long night out, until “life,” disappointing, responsible real-life, is forced upon us by children, debt, or some other force regarded as external (because who’d grown up if they weren’t made to?).
Kevin Barry reads “Across the Rooftops”
“Wifey-Redux” satirizes the Celtic Tiger pretensions of yuppie parents who fail to understand that every generation acts just like the one before, but believes they’re completely different (largely by dint of their purchasing decisions). “Fjord of Kilary” collects a group of Barry’s typical misfit characters in a remote bar on a stormy night. Narrated by a blocked poet, we learn much about the difficult dynamics of rural living, limited social connections, and anxiety in post-Tiger Ireland. It’s also a story that seems to suggest that chaos and uncertainty are essential to the creative process. If so, it’s no wonder there’s been such a flowering of great writing in Ireland in recent years.
“A Cruelty” is a sad piece told from the point of view of a man with some learning disabilities. “Beer Trip to Llandudno” is the first of several stories Barry sets outside Ireland (in what, in another story, he calls “the dreaming cities of Europe”) something that underlines his growing range. A group of Real Ale aficionados take a trip to Wales to sample different beers. The day-trip takes an unexpected turn when one bumps into an ex-girlfriend in a pub, and the lads are forced to consider the big issues in their lives: relationships and bad choices — something they normally use alcohol to avoid thinking about. This is one of the best pieces in the book.
Barry reverts to oddball situations and characters in several pieces towards the end that feel less substantial, almost throwback exercises in mood, darkness, and excess. As someone who enjoyed his first book largely for these reasons, I was thrilled to see the early stories in this volume going deeper and marrying his trademark messed-up characters to larger social and cultural trends, so these freakshow pieces felt a little disappointing. Although, as this is his first collection to be widely available in the US (his first collection, the brilliant There Are Little Kingdoms, came out in Ireland in 2007, but has only just been made available in the US), I suspect their inclusion was deliberate, and American audiences reading Barry for the first time will revel in all these stories because of the range they present.
The last two pieces, “Dark Lies the Island” and “Berlin Arkanoplatz – My Lesbian Summer” are richer and more reflective, returning to the expansiveness of the first half of the book, although much less comic than Barry’s norm. The title story regards a young woman with a history of self-harm, who retreats to her father’s holiday cottage in a remote corner of Ireland. Living on her own, she faces a decision on whether to continue on her current path or not. A set of kitchen knives stand on a counter like Checkov’s gun, and the tension revolves around what she will do with them.
In “Berlin Arkanoplatz,” a young writer remembers time spent among artists and dropouts when he was just setting out on his own artistic path. It’s a meditation on friendships, influence, and the strange things we learn from and remember about others. As a counter-point to the isolated loners that populate most of Barry’s stories, this piece seems to acknowledge the potentially problematic truth of the artist’s life (or indeed, most people’s lives) the division of the social self from the artistic self. The often incompatible need for companionship and experience to inspire, and the resultant need for solitude and reflection within which to make art. Artists live within this struggle, and the success of most writer’s lives depends upon finding an acceptable balance. Like the blocked poet in “Fjord of Kilary,” the story centers on an artist feeling the tension between inspiration and peace of mind. For this artist, the Eastern-European photographer Silvija, there are times when the tensions get too much, and she must get away.
This is not to force the interpretation that all Barry’s stories concern artistic personalities out of balance in some way, but it’s a theme that recurs through his work, and this suggestion, offered like a key in these final pieces, made me return to the first page to reread his stories in this new light.
Dark Lies the Island is a strong collection that at first glance seems largely gothic and satiric, but on reflection and closer reading reveals some very serious concerns and deeper meditations. This is a collection that both entertains and rewards rereading.
Links on this page are for the US edition. Readers in Ireland & the UK can pick up Dark Lies the Island here…
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