Short stories have a strong place in Irish writing, and many Irish authors of literary fiction have turned their hand to the genre. Kevin Barry is a very fine addition to the list. Dark Lies the Island is his second volume in this format and maintains a superb standard throughout, ranging from the touching, romantic and poignant through the humourous to the threatening. There are hints of an older more traditional Ireland, but the overall tone is very much one of an Ireland overtaken by new values, promulgated by a range of dystopian subcultures. And even where rural Ireland is portrayed, it is a sinister, off-kilter rural Ireland rather than the bucolic ideal of the past.
Barry writes beautifully, and has the knack of being able to portray the essence of a character in a few short sentences or paragraphs. It is in the nature of the short story that we have to grasp the characters quickly and this is where Dark Lies the Island is particularly successful. Some of these characters and their experiences will live in my memory even if their names quickly fade I read this book quickly, but I find that I want to go back immediately to read some of these stories again, to re-experience the emotions which they have stirred.
There are thirteen stories in total, ranging from six pages to just over twenty. Most are set in Ireland, though a minority deal with the Irish abroad – a Real Ale Club from Liverpool takes a day trip to Llandudno, a young Irish writer spends a summer on the margins of Berlin Society and an IRA cell plan a bombing in Camden.
Dark Lies the Island opens on a wistful note with Across the Rooftops – the story of a kiss which may or may not happen, but in the end doesn’t go quite as planned. Wifey Redux relates the narrative of a blissful marriage which has gradually deteriorated and the difficulty of a father coming to terms with the sexuality of his daughter – the tone is one of dark humour. Other stories deal with the darker side of human relationships – A Cruelty follows a day in the life of a young man with Autism Spectrum Disorder, while Ernestine and Kit are two elderly ladies with some very bad intentions.
Most of the characters here are inadequate in one way or another. Barry writes about them with a degree of compassion while not shying away from highlighting their weaknesses and failures.
Overall, I loved this collection for its range and scope. There is not a bad story here and more than a few great ones which will live long in the memory. It deserves to be widely read. Barry is a very talented writer with a very well received novel (City of Bohane) and two excellent collections of short stories who may well become a major figure in Irish Fiction in the years to come.
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