Dark Lies the Island is a collection of Kevin Barry’s short stories, several of which previously appeared individually in publications such as the New Yorker (‘Fjord of Killary’) or won awards (‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2012).
Barry’s great talent is his use of language, never trying to test the reader’s vocabulary for the sake of it, never afraid to use dialect or slang words to paint a more realistic picture. As to be expected with an Irish writer, Barry sets most of his stories in Ireland, or at least with Irish protagonists, but he branches out to north-west England in ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’. Even with a cast of Scousers he manages to write with authenticity this tale of a group of real ale enthusiasts on a day out.
The topics of these stories are all varied, and several are quite dark in tone, though Barry uses humour to great effect. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Wifey Redux’, the story of a husband and father who seems to have it all – until his teenage daughter finds herself a boyfriend and we find that he has a much darker side:
‘Howya doin’ boss-man?’
This, quickly, became his ritual greeting when I answered the door, evenings, and found him in his track pants and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirt on the chequered tiles of our porch. He typically accompanied the greeting with a pally little punch on my upper arm and a big, toothy grin. He was seventeen, six two, with blonde, floppy hair, and about eight million quids’ worth of dental work. Looked like he’d been raised on prime beef and full-fat milk. Handsome as a movie star and so easy in his skin. One of those horrible mid-Atlantic twangs – these kids don’t even sound fucking Irish any more – and broad as a jeep; I had no doubt he could beat the shit out of me. Which meant that I would have to surprise him.
I found the strongest stories in this collection to be those which used humour to the best effect. I wasn’t so keen on the two stories set in London: ‘Wistful England’ and ‘The Mainland Campaign’. The latter especially I felt was missing some meaning. A young Irish lad, Steven, is living in London, scoping out Camden tube station, and it eventually becomes clear that his aim is to leave a bomb there, taking the guise of a prospective busker and depositing it there under cover of a guitar case. Barry’s characterisation was masterful as usual, but there was something of the tourist in his descriptions of what Steven got up to while he waited for the day of the bombing to come. Perhaps this was intended: Steven after all had a persona to build as his cover story. But I thought not, and I also wasn’t sure of Steven’s motivation when he seemed far keener on going out and meeting girls.
I have already found myself recommending this book to several people. Barry’s writing is always entertaining, always thought-provoking and mixes dark humour with some genuinely upsetting moments (the OAP kiddie-snatchers, poor Donie on his daily outing). There is certainly not a boring story in this collection.