A shot of joy in the dark

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 185 pages

Kevin Barry broke on to the Irish literary scene in 2007 with There are Little Kingdoms, a maverick collection of short stories published by The Stinging Fly, an independent Dublin literary press noted for its cutting edge poetry and prose. It was an outstanding collection, quite unlike the work of either Barry’s contemporaries or his predecessors, and it signalled the emergence of a major new voice. Each story was infused with a sense of glee in the telling, and showcased Barry’s relish for language: his eye for canny description, and his ear for the darkly hilarious.

The collection was met with rave reviews, and earned the author the 2008 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and a publishing deal with Jonathan Cape. Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, followed last year and was shortlisted for both the 2011 Costa First Novel Award and the Irish Novel of the Year.

What distinguished There are Little Kingdoms and City of Bohane was Barry’s use of a rhythmic, rural Hiberno-English in which sentence structure was inverted and questions were statements and nobody quite said what they meant. It was a school of writing that Patrick McCabe christened Bog Gothic when describing his own work. Several of the stories in Dark Lies the Island are written in this key, notably “Fjord of Killary”, which was first published in The New Yorker and is an outstanding example of what the short story can be, of what it can do. In it, a poet with writer’s block escapes his city life to take over the running of a small hotel by the sea only to find himself holed up with a clutch of lunatics (“the locals were given to magnificent mood swings”) who ignore him except when they need another drink. And then one night the sea breaks the sea wall. The water rises, and it keeps rising until it floods the ground floor of the hotel, forcing the poet and his eastern European bar staff and lunatic customers to flee to the upstairs disco room, at which point the poet finally feels a bout of poetry coming on ...

As might be expected of Barry in the wake of City of Bohane, a novel centring around feuding renegade factions, many of these stories depict the wild and half-demented living on the edges of society – two outlaw brothers with no money and one van; a psychopath drug dealer living off benefits, having “bred” eight feral children off two sisters. But wildness lurks in unexpected places on Barry’s dark island. The local GP pays a visit to a new age travellers’ camp and finds there an unlikely soulmate. Two ladies of a certain age set out for an afternoon spin which ends in the darkest place imaginable.

Compounding this sense of simmering chaos is a sinister and supernatural seam which runs through the collection. Barry’s characters have demons, in the metaphorical sense but apparently in the literal sense too. Mirrors must be covered up against the threat of malevolence. Lights must be illuminated to banish the faces that press themselves against windowpanes in the night.

Barry extends his range in Dark Lies the Island – both geographically to neighbouring Britain, in which several of the stories are set (the collection could arguably be called Dark Lie the Islands) and stylistically, in that the occasional passage is written in an elegiac tone reminiscent of the high priest of Irish lyricism, Sebastian Barry (no relation).

These are stories of lost love and fragile souls. In “Beer Trip to Llandudno”, a gem of a tale which last month secured the author the 2012 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the hungover members of the Merseyside branch of the Real Ale Club set off on their monthly outing only for one of their party to encounter a long-lost love, the woman who had broken his heart. It’s a masterful exploration of the fond but stunted dynamics which define male friendship. The only weak link in the collection is a tale set in middle-class suburban Dublin. Unlike its counterparts, it is played for laughs alone. The other stories triumph because they function on many levels – they are funny, sad, troubling, illuminating, often in equal measure. Barry is a writer alert to the concentrated shot of joy that the short story – and, indeed, the well-turned sentence – can provide. His technique of coupling frayed nerves with a poetical sensibility proves to be a richly rewarding one.

Claire Kilroy’s ‘The Devil I Know’ will be published by Faber in August

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