Dark Lies the Island

  • Kevin Barry
  • Graywolf Press
  • 192 pp.

Unease, violence and darkness run through this short-story collection, the latest work by the award-winning Irish author.

Kevin Barry’s stories in Dark Lies the Island, his third book, are indeed dark — dark as the ocean that surrounds Ireland, which he describes as “a small, wet little rock on the verge of the Black Atlantic.” The collection is more bitter than sweet, like the darkest of chocolate. Barry says he wants his readers to have an intense experience and that, for him, “intensity is often comic.”

There is comedy here, but it is the blackest humor; irony shades into tragedy as the author chronicles the lives of working people in the small cities of western Ireland, a region and populace he believes have been overlooked by Irish literature. His composite portrait of people and place evokes James Joyce’s The Dubliners,which the author checked out from the Limerick library in 1987 when he was 18 and never returned because he loved it so much. He first read Joyce’s book in the Limerick Cathedral graveyard, lying “among the headstones, melancholy … hoping for an early but ironic death.” Like Joyce, Barry writes “by ear,” and he very much succeeds at his stated goal of getting “a musical feeling into the sentences,” but this is a contemporary beat, most often a pulsing, stuttering rock rhythm. His prose falls into a hybrid zone of narrative, dialogue and poetry. Barry has written ballads as well as novels, plays and stories. The linking linguistic and thematic refrain in this collection is darkness — the word dark and words connoting darkness appear frequently, and most stories take place on dark, sinister nights.

Barry arranges the collection carefully and shrewdly. It opens with what is almost a love story: A timid young man contemplates attempting to kiss the beautiful girl he sits beside on a rooftop at dawn. Thus Barry lures the reader in with a gentle story, hooking us, and the stories progressively grow darker, more caustic, approaching brutal — reminiscent of the menace beneath the mordant humor in Welshman Roald Dahl’s collection Kiss Kiss. Rain, lethal drugs, booze and brawls are the common experiences in Barry’s dystopian world. His characters are in desperate straits personally and financially; they face disaster with scathing irony and superficial detachment. Relationships are underwater and threatened by encroaching catastrophe.

In the viciously hilarious “Fjord of Killary,” the viewpoint character’s investments are literally underwater. The 40-year-old poet turned innkeeper has sunk his savings in an old inn in a region where it “rained two hundred and eighty-seven days of the year.” The story takes place during a storm with rain “like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled sky god …” The innkeeper opens the taps in the bar, and everyone drinks Bushmills whiskey and Guinness stout, awaiting watery apocalypse with sarcastic fatalism.

In the devastating title story, a young girl has turned out all the lights in the chilly glass cube of a modern house to let “dark take over the glass.” She listens to the whispers of the “Dark Angel” and throws knives into the night as she attempts to resist cutting herself, searching “the dark for calm.”

These stories are anything but calm — the collection is taut and freighted with unease and violence. Of the several genres he practices, Barry believes writing stories to be the most difficult, because “you can lose a short story with a single sentence, like taking a wrong step on a high-wire walk.” He takes few wrong steps here, and these stories are breathtaking, death-defying feats. A former journalist, Barry believes that “reality and realism are somewhat over rated,” and here he employs intentional theatricality, ramping up the tension beneath his fraught, deceptively plain language to reveal “hyper-real places,” characters and conflicts.

Barry has been called a literary supernova: Since his first story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, appeared in 2007 and his novel City of Bohane in 2010, he has garnered accolades including The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, The Author’s Club First Novel Award and The International IMPAC Dublin City Award. Most recently, he received the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize for this collection. The author is by his own description a hugely ambitious writer, joking, “I won’t be happy till I’m up there receiving the Nobel Prize.” It is poignant to read these stories and think of his prodigious gift and drive, in the shadow of Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s death.

Although Barry certainly carries on the Celtic tradition of lyric and storytelling with these brilliant, ferocious stories, this collection does not approach the nuanced depth of passion and compassion, warmth and wisdom, found in Heaney’s poetry or Joyce’s fiction. But, given time and further experience, Barry may climb that podium on a dark northern winter night in Norway, to wink and wave and shake a triumphant fist at the stars.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction and essays have appeared in journals including The Massachusetts Review, The American Literary Review and The Fiction Writers Review.

She is at work on a novel set in a former psychiatric hospital near her home in Maryland.

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