William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most lauded short story writers says,
Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.
Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island is a sharp collection of thirteen tales about the unheroic, the little people for whom success is a far away dream. The best of these stories turn dramatically with a well-placed phrase, causing the reader to stumble and re-evaluate what has gone before. All are written with a vividness, humour and sharp wit as to bring you immediately to the heart of the experience, whether it be a quiet moment of self-realisation or a terrifying moment of unexpected violence.
Barry is drawn to the underbelly of society – those on the edge, in trouble or winging it. White Hitachi follows a pair of dodgy brothers, scrabbling through life in an attempt to avoid jail or destitution, whichever comes first. Their hopeful chat. love for their car and best laid plans leave them well-meaning, but ultimately doomed. Violence looms unexpectedly in the aptly named A Cruelty where a young disabled man has his routine, and possibly his life, forever changed by one random act of malice. The Girls and the Dogs is an Irvine Welsh style tale of bad debt, bad sex and psychotic torture that leaves a nasty hangover while Ernestine and Kit displays all the humour and horror of a Tales of the Unexpected as two elderly ladies on a day out in the sun reveal a very dark side.
What were they taken for, they wondered, out there amid the light and gatherings of summer? Maiden aunts, they supposed, or a pair of nuns who…had left their order, or maybe as discreet lesbians just a little too aged for openness. What was certain was they would be taken for gentle, kind souls with their aunt-like smiles to seal the contrivance.
Many of these stories have a wry self-knowing bloke-ishness to them – often featuring men who romanticize women in an unrealistic way. In the hilarious Wifey Redux a middle class, middle aged man realises that his wife is no longer the young, beautiful creature he married, while his seventeen year old daughter is.
It’s just one of those things you’re supposed to keep shtum about. Horribly often, our beautiful, perfect daughters emerge into a perfect facsimile of how our beautiful, desirable wives had been, back then, when they were young. And slim. And sober.
His frustration with his life takes the guise of anger towards his daughter’s ex-boyfriend and builds to a comic catharsis of epic proportions. In Across the Rooftops, a young man finally gathers the courage to kiss the object of his affections, only to find, in the dying days of summer, that it is too little too late. Doctor Sot finds its titular character – an ageing, drunken doctor become enamoured with an itinerant woman whom he visits in her caravan on the outskirts of town.
He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin. Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep. If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them in his own, he happily would.
Beer Trip to Llandudno, about a Real Ale Club’s day-trip which ends in one of its members running in to an ex, could be played for laughs but instead uses humour and empathy to explore the universal need to belong and the nostalgia that comes with age and regret.
‘Put a gun to my head’, said Big John, ‘and I don’t think I could look past the draught Bass I had with me dad in Peter Kavanagh’s. Sixteen years of age. Friday teatime, first wage slip in my arse pocket’
‘But was it the beer or the occasion, John?’
‘How can we separate the two?’ he said, and we all sighed
Not all the stories are successful. The Mainland Campaign, in which a young Irishman is a cog in the wheel of a bombing attack on London has an interesting premise but lacks direction and Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer in which a young photographer works for a lesbian artist in Berlin, is knowing rather than engaging.
The stories that work best are those where Barry’s great ear for dialogue, his humour and his sense of place all work together to create moments of real emotional heft. In the title story Dark Lies the Island a young woman has retreated to her architect father’s modern holiday home on an island in Clew Bay, ostensibly to take a year out to work on her art. Instead she spends most of her time thinking about self-harming, or not self-harming, her polite well-heeled parents too terrified of tipping her over the edge to give her any meaningful help.
Her brain was moving so fast it was out the other side of town already and looking back. She saw herself drive. She felt like she was filmed every minute of the day
Barry writes here with real sensitivity and insight, using nature as a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation of his protagonist’s troubled mind.
The highlight of the collection is the marvellous Fjord of Killary in which a poet with writer’s block is regretting the purchase of an old hotel in North Galway due to grumpy staff, grumpier locals and a distinct lack of inspiration.
My poetry was known of but was not a difficulty for the Killary locals – there had never been a shortage of poets out here. Every last crooked rock of the place had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondriacal epiphany-seeker. Some fucker who’s forever be giving out about his lungs
As a flood threatens the hotel in apocalyptic fashion leading to panic, drinking and disco-dancing, inspiration comes pouring in, in a moment of emotional epiphany and understanding.
Kevin Barry has an ease to his writing which makes his stories very accessible and the ability to swiftly turn a tale on a moment, a line or an emotional shift. His stories often feel like they could take one of two paths, either towards happiness or towards pain and the enjoyment is found in letting him lead the way. His characters all have their problems, and what they have in common is that they know what the problems are, they are just struggling for a way to solve them.
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