Afterthoughts: There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

In a Nutshell: If you’re looking for a sharp, witty and entertaining look at the more marginal side of life on the Emerald Isle, then you won’t go far wrong in picking up this collection. With There Are Little Kingdoms Kevin Barry shows himself to be one of the real masters of the short story form, and as such I’ve added him to my small and very exclusive pool of favourite short story writers. Yes folks he really is that good a storyteller, and this collection clearly demonstrates why.

*****

It’s taken me a while getting to the end of Kevin Barry’s debut short story collection, but it’s been a journey that has definitely thrilled and entertained me every step of the way. I began reading There Are Little Kingdoms way back in August of last year, in preparation for his EdBookFest event with Simon Van Booy (you can read my report on that event, HERE). It was, to be honest, my first exposure to the writings of Barry. Originally I only saw it as background reading for the event I was attending but very quickly, as I began to get drawn into Barry’s incredible rich and vivid storytelling world, I began to form a very high opinion of the Limerick-born writer.

Having now finished There Are Little Kingdoms I can state with complete conviction that Kevin Barry has gained a place in my exclusive pool of favourite short story writers, simply because I’ve seldom read anything as rich and character-filled as this collection (and if you think he’s impressive in print then you should see him live).

Before I go on to tell you a little more about the collection (outwith what I’ve already written in my forethoughts post), and discuss some of my favourite stories, I’ll share with you my review summaries and ratings for each of the stories in the There Are Little Kingdoms collection (links lead to my full review for each story):

  • Atlantic City“James [the story’s main character] stands on a pedestal as a god among men (and women), and Barry exalts him magnificently”Rating: ★★★½☆
  • To the Hills “a great story…Barry captures mood and moment brilliantly”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • See The Tree, How Big It’s Grown“I felt as though this was more of an opening to a novel rather than a standalone short”Rating: ★★★½☆
  • Animal Needs – “a quality story from Barry that’s full of wit and humour” – Rating: ★★★½☆
  • Last Days Of The Buffalo“I adored this story for the way in which Barry so well-roundedly paints one of his characters”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • Ideal Homes“Definitely the best Barry story I’ve read so far. Full marks!”Rating: ★★★★★
  • The Wintersongs“this story resonates with the spirit of Maupassant (even though it’s set in Ireland)”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • Party At Helen’s“If Kevin Barry has a repository in his head for storing characters then it must look a lot like this story”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • Breakfast Wine“Barry expertly brings out little nuances and subtleties in character and surroundings”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • Burn The Bad Lamp“I left this story 100% chuckling and 100% satisfied”Rating: ★★★★★
  • There Are Little Kingdoms“I adored Barry’s description of town life, but ultimately this story is all a bit bewildering”Rating: ★★★½☆
  • Nights At The Gin Palace“A superbly entertaining tale from Barry, one that’s put me on the verge of dubbing him the Irish Chekhov”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • The Penguins “A real treat of a story, even if it does take something of a diversion from the other tales in this collection”Rating: ★★★★☆

So what can I say about the collection as a whole? Well I think I can state without fear of contradiction, that There Are Little Kingdoms is most definitely Irish in flavour. That said, if only Barry’s vision were to be believed, then Ireland consists of nothing more than drunkards and odd characters. And that’s because just as Chekhov often presents his characters in a largely exaggerated and humourous way to overly emphasis the theme/meaning of his stories, Barry specifically engineers overstated characters in order to magnify his observations of the more marginal aspects of Irish life (an area in which he takes obvious enjoyment in exploring). He does so with triumphant effect, and as such most of Barry’s characters are so well-rounded and so fully formed (within the confines of the short story form of course), that his stories could stand as the literary equivalent of the 3D movie.

I kid you not dear reader, Barry’s characters bring so much vibrancy and life to the page, that the book almost feels as though it has a heartbeat of it’s own. So it’s no coincidence perhaps that the stories which stood out most for me in this collection, were the ones which contained the most outrageous characters. Take my favourite story of the collection for instance, Ideal Homes, which follows the exploits of randy teenage twins Donna and Dee as they set out on a night out in their local village. The story is hilarious, not only because of the twins but also because of the kind of rockin’ night than can be had (or rather can’t be), in a sleepy Irish village.

Nights At The Gin Palace is also marked out as an outstanding story for me because this one is as close in style and quality to Chekhov, as anything I’ve ever read from any modern-day writer (regulars at RobAroundBooks know how much I admire and value the Russian master, so you can be sure that this is indeed high praise from me).

Finally I should mention Burn The Bad Lamp because this is another tale for which I awarded full marks, but this time it wasn’t so much about sparkling characters but more about Barry’s sharp humour. If anyone ever asked me which single story they should read in order to gain a real sense of Barry’s level of humour, then this would undoubtedly be the one I’d choose (followed closely by Atlantic City).

To be honest I can’t really praise There Are Little Kingdoms enough, so I’m going to stop trying. But in closing I really want ot say that this collection has depth, it has variety and it is has substance. But most importantly of all There Are Little Kingdoms has consistency. It’s often the case with single author collections that they turn out to be something of a mixed bag. The author mixes in his best stories with a few that are not so hot (I don’t know what the official term is but I like to call them ‘fillers’), and the collection ends up being fairly average. I didn’t really get a sense of this from this collection (with the possible exception of one story – See The Tree, How Big It’s Grown, which felt somewhat incomplete), and that’s an incredibly very rare thing to find. So my suggestion is not to even think about it twice. Pick up a copy of There Are Little Kingdoms at your earliest convenience, and prepare yourself for one of the most entertaining short story collections that you’re ever likely to read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Stinging Fly Press | Oct 2007 | €9.99 | PAPERBACK | 154 PP | ISBN: 9780955015298

:: What others have said about There Are Little Kingdoms::

  • “Reading Kevin Barry’s collection is like finding a shiny two-pound coin in a pile of muck. It brings unexpected pleasure.”Elaine Chiew, The Short Review.
  • “it’s George Saunders meets The League of Gentlemen! In Ireland!” John Self, Asylum.
  • “[Barry’s] prose are exquisite and highly visual, and the pages teem with human wildlife, briefly captured sentiment and sidelong glance.”Marc Goldin, Laurahird.com.
About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

Comments

  1. In a time of economic disaster, “the more marginal side of life” deserves more attention from fiction.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Shelley. Plus peering into the marginal side of life is a lot more interesting.
      Rob

  2. Good to see a story by story post on Kevin Barry’s. First collection. This would be a perfect post for Irish Short Stories Year two,