Dark Lies the Island

by Kevin Barry
reviewed by Ophelia John
October 1, 2015

Kevin Barry’s literary CV includes The New Yorker, Tin House, Best European Fiction, New Irish Short Stories, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Barry, who also works in screenplay and theatre, has published one novel, City of Bohane. Central to this collection of ultra-modern short stories is the interlocking of internal and external dangers, exemplified in the title story, “Dark Lies the Island,” in which a young woman with the habit of cutting herself struggles against her compulsion.

The protagonist’s divorced parents—a father who makes pseudo-thoughtful phone calls from his holiday in Spain and a chirpy mother remade with “cheekbones” and “rampant-teenage-bunny tits”—have left her alone in their vacation home, a wall-less creation of cut glass and terrifying door handles that she cannot bear to touch. With only a dial-up modem to connect her to online “friends,” she faces the literal darkness on her own. Demons encroach and she weakens, but Barry mercifully lets a slice of hope in at the end as the protagonist hurls her father’s expensive kitchen knives out the doors into the wet night.

Barry excels at rising endings, and one of the best in the collection, in the story “Fjord of Killary,” gently allows a disillusioned urbanite who has taken over a bar on the Irish coast to survive a mad deluge. Pitch-perfect in its unfolding, rhythm, and timing, nearly every line of the story is quotable. The protagonist, trapped with his rural clientele and their favorite lines of conversation, nearly boils over:

“You’d make good time coming out of Sligo, normally,” Bill Knott said, “unless you had a Thursday on your hands. But of course them fuckers have any amount of road under them since McSharry was minister.”
        “I said will it flood, Bill? Will it flood? Are you even listening to me?”

And then there are his sullen, love-bite-sporting Belarussian staff:

Lovely, cold-hearted Nadia came running from the kitchen. She was white as the fallen dead.
        “Is otter!” she said.
        “What?”
        “Is otter in kitchen!” she said.
        He was eating soup when I got there. Carrot and coriander from a ten-gallon pot. Normally, they are terribly skittish, otters, but this fellow was languorous as a surfer. Nervously, I shooed him towards the back door. . . . Once outside, he aimed not for the tide-line rocks, where the otters lived, but for the higher ground, south.

This poet-cum-hotelier who’d initially envisioned himself in the “mine-host role” is now bitter and self-aware: “My first weeks out at the Water’s Edge I had kept a surreptitious notebook under the bar. The likes of ‘thrun down’ would get a delighted entry. I would guess at the likely etymology—from ‘thrown down’, as in ‘laid low’? But I had quickly had my fill of these maudlin bastards.” As the floodwaters rise and the crowd moves to the second-floor bar, Barry’s timing turns comic and his sentences shrink to single beats before expanding again: “We drank. We whispered. We laughed like cats. Bill Knott reckoned the distance to Clare Island overseas, if it should come to it.” When the waters drop, the skies open, both literally and figuratively, as the protagonist finds acceptance and release from his writer’s block.

The shades of humanity in Barry’s stories range from gray to very dark. Crushed people do bad things and/or have worse things done to them, as in “A Cruelty,” where a mentally handicapped man is terrorized out of his happy everyday routine by a rabid stranger. Over the course of the very funny and terribly sad “Beer Trip to Llanduddo,” a social club of drinking men, no longer young and bearing all the weight of their hobby, makes a field trip to another town and into the past. Each glass they swallow helps buoy them up against their own failures and losses, until it doesn’t; “Mo” encounters an old love, sparking memories of lost families, and in an almost-aside, one member of the club happens to mention why another isn’t allowed within 200 yards of schools.

Later, in the horrific “The Girls and the Dogs,” the attack dogs don’t bark or foam at the mouth but silently fix their yellow eyes on the dying protagonist, a drug dealer on the lam whose sadistic boss locks him into a trailer with no food and water in order to force him into having group sex. After several days, the protagonist manages to rip apart the rotting floor around the toilet and escape. When he sights “nothing, just nothing at all, and I was at a high vantage point suddenly and beneath me, on a plain, were the lights of Gort,” he reaches a sort of transcendence in the pause between one story and the next. But there is no last-minute breathing room in “Ernestine and Kit,” which features a pair of elderly female child-kidnappers; here, the reader is left with the aftertaste of infanticide and little in the way of why, wherefore, or the mix of hilarity and misery that runs through many of the other stories.

Rather than active brutality, there are low-fashion photo shoots with dog shit plus broken glass and petty theft in “Berlin Arkonaplatz—My Lesbian Summer,” which nevertheless packs its punches in soft places. A different current of sadness floats through the summer story of twenty-one-year-old Patrick, an aspiring writer fresh from Cork who falls for his startling, tough roommate Silvija:

She had as a kid dispensed blow jobs for soup money. She had been tied up in a facility once and brutalised with a broom handle . . . there was a period of homelessness in Genoa (she cracked up and became obsessed with reading the words of the streetname signs backwards—Via Garibaldi . . . Idlabirag).

The essential truths of Silvija’s characterization are these hard details, proof that the author knows his cities and his creations inside and out. Barry’s brilliant work pulls hard on personal disaster and the strings of place, from UK regionalisms to these more continental details. All of his characters might inhabit the edge, but even those who were born hard-up with no chance for a lift possess an essential knack for turning a phrase.