Afterthoughts: Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

In a Nutshell: Dark Lies the Island is easily as good as Barry’s debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms, and in some respects – mainly in terms of maturity – it’s even better. I may have been worried going into this one thinking that I may have set my expectations too high, but I needn’t have been concerned because I came out the other side of Dark Lies the Island with the reinforced belief that Kevin Barry is one of the greatest short story writers living today.

If you don’t read Dark Lies the Island then you’ll be missing out on a definitive lesson in the art of short story telling then this is it. This collection will illuminate you.

*****

And so rather reluctantly I’ve come to the end of my journey through Kevin Barry’s new short story collection, Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape), and it’s time to offer up my afterthoughts. If you’ve been following my journey through this collection then I’m sure it’ll come as little surprise to any of you to hear that I loved it.

I said in my forethoughts that although I was excited to be heading into Dark Lies the Island, I was little anxious because I feared, having built such a passion for the short fiction of Kevin Barry over the past couple of years, that my expectations may have been set too high. Fact is, I needn’t have worried because Dark Lies the Island is magnificent. It’s easily as good as Barry’s debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms (The Stinging Fly Press), and in some respects it’s even better.

Before I go on to tell you a little more about my overall impression of Dark Lies the Island, I’d like to present to you a rundown of all of my individual reviews of each story in the collection, with links to each review and ratings. I’ve also provided a brief quote from each individual review, to save you from having to leave this page (I know, I’m all heart and kind consideration :)):

  • Across the Rooftops“I loved this story’s subtlety, because it’s more about delicate body language than anything else. I also loved the story’s rooftop setting. Aside from anything else, it made everything feel all the more intimate.”Rating: ★★★½☆
  • Wifey Redux“I loved, loved, loved loved, loved this story. If you’re a Dad (like me), and you have a teenage daughter (like me – I have 2), then this story will really resonate with you.”Rating: ★★★★½
  • Fjord of Killary“Through reading so many of Kevin Barry’s stories I’ve come to learn that he does two things extraordinarily well – characters and dialogue. Both of these ‘super powers’ are clearly evident in this story. It’s an absolute triumph.”Rating: ★★★★★
  • A Cruelty“I adore this story even if it is a little sad overall, and my affection for Donie is such that one would think it were a real person who I knew personally. What a most gifted storyteller Barry is.”Rating: ★★★★★
  • Beer Trip to Llandudno“Pacy and energy-filled, ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ is one of these stories that warms the heart (with its subject matter), and tickles the soul (through its humour). Classic Kevin Barry. “Rating: ★★★★½
  • Ernestine and Kit“Penned with plump descriptions and laced with lashings of humour, ‘Ernestine and Kit’ brings a new and dark activity to the pool of senior pastimes. Brilliant!”Rating: ★★★★★
  • The Mainland Campaign“To be honest [this story] didn’t grab me to the same extent as some of Barry’s others have. There are moments of magic (the eclectic flavour of Camden Town is captured beautifully), but overall I found The Mainland Campaign to be a bit flat.”Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • Wistful England“I rather enjoyed this story. It has something of the melancholic mood of a Chekhov tale to it, and as always it’s exquisitely penned.”Rating: ★★★½☆
  • Doctor Sot“I can’t even begin to describe just how charming I found this story to be. The character of Doctor Sot is warm and endearing (oddly, made all the more so by his mild drunkenness) and his gentlemanly charisma just beams off the page.”Rating: ★★★★½
  • The Girls and the Dogs“Barry is renowned for penning manic, drunken-fuelled tales, and The Girls and the Dogs is a prime example. Completely original for all the right reasons this story is madder than a box of frogs and throughly entertaining.”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • White Hitachi“This is an hilarious tale about two brothers who have little choice but to live on the wrong side of the law. It’s got brilliant characters, there are plenty of laughs, and it’s all held together with razor-sharp dialogue.”Rating: ★★★★½
  • Dark Lies the Island“Barry paints a sense of loneliness and vulnerability in the story’s self-harming main character to such an extraordinary depth that he shows in the space of one short story, just how deftly he can turn his pen to the darker and more affecting side of fiction writing.”Rating: ★★★★☆
  • Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer“This story is full of sexually depraved characters – Bohemian deviants who seek to shock – but despite being crammed with so many strong personalities it didn’t really appeal to me all that much.”Rating: ★★★☆☆

Five star magnificence
You’ll have noticed perhaps that I rated three of the stories in this collection a perfect five, and I do so for good reason. Fjord of Killary is as perfect a short story as I’ve ever read. It’s very much a signature story for Kevin Barry because it embodies all of the qualities and quirks that make him the renowned storyteller that he is. A Cruelty is to be celebrated for its tenderness, as Barry dispenses almost totally with the hilarity, preferring instead to pull at the reader’s heart strings with a tale that’s as emotional as it is charming. And then the humour comes crashing back – albeit in a dark way – in Ernestine and Kit which is a spectacularly entertaining tale about two pensioners who have a very sinister hobby.

And that’s not forget the four stories that were a mere half a mark away from perfect. Wifey Redux which looks at an issue close to every father of a teenage daughter, Doctor Sot in which the reader gets to spend an extraordinary day in the company of a small town alcoholic doctor, and Barry’s brilliant Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award winning story, Beer Trip to Llandudno. All demonstrate just how incredibly adept Barry is as a short story writer.

The stories that didn’t click
Although Barry’s descriptions of Camden Town in The Mainland Campaign are exquisite – he captures the ambiance and ethos of the place brilliantly – I found the story to be blander than perhaps a tale about an IRA terrorist should be. Wistful England while totally infusing the mood of melancholy that Barry so clearly wanted to achieve with this story, just felt like it plodded along. And Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer? Well, I just found it to be plain weird, and not in a good way.

What’s surprising about all three of the stories I didn’t click with in this collection, is that they’re all, for the most part, set outside of Ireland. Sure, the protagonists in these stories are all Irish, but there’s no glow and warmth of Emerald Isle in any of these stories, and perhaps it’s because Barry is so spectacular (not to mention habitual) in capturing his native land in his prose, that these stories feel somewhat lacking. That said, Barry’s masterpiece Beer Trip to Llandudno features a bunch of Liverpudlians in Wales, which is about as un-Irish as it gets, so maybe I’m just waffling. I do however, just get the overall feeling that Dark Lies the Island as a whole, doesn’t feel as Irish as Barry’s first collection. And whether this is a bad thing or not I’m not quite sure.

Barry’s a Romantic at heart
I’ve discussed my favourite stories in this collection, and the ones which I didn’t connect with quite so well, but before I bring these afterthoughts to a close I want to give specific praise to the titular story of this collection, Dark Lies The Island. This is an incredibly powerful tale about a young girl who is alone and desolate and fighting the demons of self-harming. Now, we all know by now just how brilliant Barry is at writing about the drunken brawls and the hilarity inherent in the marginal characters who populate his stories, but in Dark Lies the Island (the story not the collection, should you be getting confused) Barry shows a certain maturity and depth that I’ve never seen before in his short stories. The sense of anxiety and foreboding in this story is palpable, and it’s made all the more atmospheric through Barry’s extraordinary use of environment and weather. There’s a real Romanticism about Dark Lies the Island, and it’s a joy to engage with it (as an aside you might want to read this piece posted by Kevin Barry on The Stinging Fly website. It clearly demonstrates the more romantique side of Kevin Barry).

A short story collection to treasure
So I think I’ve said all I can say about this collection, and I leave you in the hope that during the course of these afterthoughts (and my individual reviews of the collection) I’ve said enough to convince you to rush out and buy a copy of Dark Lies the Island, because just like There Are Little Kingdoms, this is a story collection worth treasuring. During the course of my campaigning to promote the glory of short stories I come across many people who regularly turn their nose up. They consider short stories to be the most inferior form of literature; a form which has no depth, point or entertainment value. To these people I would eagerly thrust a copy of this collection into their hands, because more than many other short story collections, Dark Lies the Island stands as a perfect example of why the short story is the most glorious of literary forms, and why Kevin Barry is one of the most fresh and exciting short story writers alive on our planet today. Mr. Barry, I salute you!

Rating: ★★★★☆

Jonathan Cape | 5th April 2012 | £12.99 | PAPERBACK | 199 PP | ISBN: 9780224090582

:: What others have said about Dark Lies the Island::

  • “[Kevin Barry’s] fluid style escorts the reader through a world that is funny, tragic, relentless, endearing and, well, very similar to this one. His profound understanding of western society is married to dialect-heavy prose to produce a startlingly unique voice.”Henry Krempels, The Sunday Observer.
  • “This is exuberant, risk-taking, exhilarating prose. Don’t be put off by its idiosyncrasies; revel in them. Barry’s reputation is growing by the year, and deservedly so. And unless he’s got a Special Bonus edition of Dark Lies The Island stashed away in the Irish midlands, I don’t think I’ll read a better collection this year.” Valerie O’Riordan, Bookmunch.
  • “Throughout, Barry’s language is intense, precise, given to delightful swerves and with pitch perfect dialogue. Unexpected joy is always close: threat is always closer in these superlative stories.”The Scotsman.
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. stujallen (Twitter: stujallen)
    says:

    I still to read beer trip ,but if I like it I will get it as you are always so passionate about his work dear rob ,all the best stu

  2. I like your refutation of the idea that short stories can’t have depth. Although I use longer forms, I think we can all name at least one short story that hit us like a ton of bricks the first time we read it and that remains in our memory, luminous.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Thank you Shelley. Yes, I absolutely agree. One of the first that affected me in a deep way was Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. It really did hit me ‘like a ton of bricks’. What story did it for you?
      Warmest
      Rob

  3. SeamusDuggan says:

    Hi Rob, now that I’ve finished reading and writing about my prize copy I’ll spend some time with your in depth analysis. I really enjoyed the final story, liked the grotesquerie. 
    And, by the way, what could be more Irish than a group of Liverpudlians? 
    http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2012/11/dark-lies-island.html

  4. This might sound odd, but I like the way Kevin Barry’s stories manipulate my emotions. He’s very skillful at this and I love the ride. Regarding Shelly and Rob’s discussion of short stories and how powerful they can be, the first short story that struck me hard was Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” I can still recite lines of it word for word.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Dear Gary,
      I tend to agree with you on this, very much so. And I think this is more evident in his second collection more than his first. He seems to have brought more maturity with his second collection, especially with stories such as ‘Dark Lies the Island’, ‘A Cruelty’ and to a lesser extent, ‘The Mainland Campaign’.

      As for Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’? I’ve never read it, but after such a glowing recommendation it seems I can’t afford not to read it. I’ve taken note. Thank you.
      Warmest
      Rob

  5. I stumbled onto this blog while I was searching for something more literary than I have been reading in recent years. Part of my brain has gone numb and I miss the depth of reading I knew when I was an English Major. Thanks for introducing me to Kevin Barry’s short stories. I look forward to reading them.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Dear Clare,
      Many thanks for stopping by, and for leaving such warm words of appreciation. Kevin Barry is extraordinary, and I’m sure you’ll get s lot from him. He’s perhaps not as literary as other short story writers – Tobias Woolf, Tessa Hadley, Joyce Carol Oates, Maupassant, Simon Van Booy etc. but he’s certainly colourful and entertaining.

      I wish you well in your quest to regain the depth of reading that you found as an English Major. Having done what you I’m sure you’ll fall right back into it instantly.
      Happy Reading
      Rob

  6. I agree totally with you about Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies The Island. It also made me want to stop drinking Pinot Grigio. He also is one of the only short story writers who doesn’t fall into a kind of literary middle class voice

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