I first met Kevin Barry many years ago at the launch for his first book, a collection of short stories entitled There Are Little Kingdoms. I went to the launch, which was in a very grungy warehouse space just off Thomas Street, with a good mate of mine who was also friends with Kevin and we listened as the author read his work. Since then Kevin has gone to great success: he won the Rooney Prize in 2007 for There Are Little Kingdoms; his second book, a novel called City of Bohane, was universally adored and nominated for The Costa Book Award; and now with his third book, another collection of short stories called Dark Lies the Island, he is on the road to further acclaim, having won the Sunday Times Short Story Award for Beer Trip To Llandundo earlier this month.
A journalist friend of mine and I have often talked about the different disciplines of writing. With interviewing you have to have a keen sense of body language, psychology, knowing when to shut the hell up and when to ask the tough questions. With a novel there is the sheer discipline of writing the bloody thing and getting it finished. And with short stories, the writer doesn’t have the luxury of developing a character or a plot over many chapters and so the writing has to be taut enough to convey a lot of information and atmosphere in a few pages.
Reading Dark Lies the Island, there is no question that Barry is a master of the form. Although the subject matter is varied, Barry’s style and talent for language is consistently astonishingly good. Barry, unlike many of his contemporaries, is not content to mine the same old seam of Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. There is no room for nostalgia or that great Irish literary standby, lyrical realism, in this collection. Barry’s writing is full of attitude, by turns dark and comic, and very much rooted in modern Ireland.
The first story, Across The Rooftops, is a bittersweet tale about a boy and a girl on a summer morning and a post-party kiss that just won’t happen. Ernestine and Kit shows two seemingly prim old ladies on a day trip, and ends up leaving the reader with a sense of horror. The Girls and The Dogs sees a psychopathic drug dealer and his two girlfriends terrorise a guy on the run. Each story is its own perfectly contained well crafted universe and a thoroughly absorbing one at that.
Having been rather blown away by this collection, City of Bohane is going on my list next. I’m fascinated to see how Barry’s facility for the short story and great use of language translates to a novel.