Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
His words address the reward centre in the brain, the neural pathways that are enlivened by nicotine, alcohol or opioids. Reading him, I am given the feeling that I’ve achieved something, done something good and am being justly remunerated. The brain lights up and grins.... Maurice and Charlie are too endearing as characters, and too alluring, to truly test our empathy; nor are they the focal point — that would be the enigmatic girl. But the beauty of their interactions and histories make this novel utterly compelling.
At other times the novel feels like an attempt to forge a new type of mystic miserabilism – a collaboration between Don DeLillo and Philip Larkin, with a desolate landscape providing the stage for long, gnomic conversations about time, as in The Names or Point Omega, but with a higher, “Larkinesque” dose of middle-age youth-envy, “boredom” and “fear” (the “Dockery and Son” pairing), and repeated mention of “high windows”, the haunting title-image of Larkin’s final collection. The recipe of flashback structure, ferries, gangsters, sojourns to Spain, eternal return, abused and mistreated old girlfriends, coming decrepitude, the damage wrought by “the money”, plus a competitive double act – one of them named Charlie – prompts memories of Saul Bellow and Humboldt’s Gift.
Given its obvious qualities, it feels almost unfair to be disappointed by this book. But, again, that’s the downside of having written such a startling first novel. On the one hand, Night Boat to Tangier shows that it’s perfectly possible to be not as good as City of Bohane and still be a pretty thrilling read. On the other, you can’t help noticing that it’s not as good as City of Bohane.
If you haven’t heard of him yet, you soon will. I’d wager he’ll wind up with the Nobel Prize for Literature before he’s done, and it beggars belief that his last novel, Beatlebone, didn’t bag the Booker Prize when it came out in 2015. Come to think of it, his first full-length work of fiction, City of Bohane, really ought to have won it too.
While Night Boat to Tangier doesn’t quite hit the heady heights of his earlier work (or his astonishingly good collections of short stories) it’s still a first-rate read.
Like Murphy, Night Boat to Tangier is really about exile and loss, and about the way in which Ireland often seems unable to fully sustain and nourish its young. In the late 1990s, buoyed up by Celtic Tiger optimism, Cynthia and Moss invest his money in a swish housing development in the countryside (the builders are nervous about the proximity of a fairy fort, and the project founders). Later Red and Moss run away to the continent to seek their fortune. But abroad they only find disappointment.
Night Boat to Tangier draws on the terrific vernacular energy in Irish English that is animating the best of Irish writing at present by the likes of Rob Doyle, Lisa McInerney and Colin Barrett. This is a remarkably achieved novel which shows a writer in full command of the possibilities of the form.
Night Boat to Tangier moves at the speed of today turning into tomorrow when you’re not paying attention, but I still found it settled comfortably in the noirish ambience created by Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. It is a book about consequences, which means it’s a book about the past. “The past is uncertain, mobile. It shifts and rearranges back there,” Barry writes. Night Boat to Tangier suggests the past comes in waves, relentlessly, always different and yet always the same, and all we can put against it are the shifting sands of our present self.
Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are searching for Dilly, Maurice’s missing daughter. Gradually, and mostly through the conversations of these old friends, it becomes clear that they are career gangsters forced into early retirement by changes in drug culture.... Kevin Barry tells his grim story in Beckettian flashes of poetry: “There was an aura of trinket menace from their neck chains in the light.” The relationship between Maurice and Charlie drives this often hilarious novel.
The novel puts a great deal of procedural crime fiction into perspective as puerile and exploitative fluff. For here is a meticulous, devastatingly vivid portrayal of serious crime and its real consequences: the waste, the insane risks, the threat of demonic violence, the punishing paranoia and the vulgar glut of cash reward packed into dodgy real estate or money laundering ventures. Most of all, though, the toll is taken on the human soul itself...Barry’s sensibility is eerie; he is attuned to spirits, to malevolent presences, the psychic tundra around us. But what distinguishes this book beyond its humour, terror and beauty of description is its moral perception. For this is no liberal forgiveness tract for naughty boys: it is a plunging spiritual immersion into the parlous souls of wrongful men.
Barry’s own twisting, inviting authorial voice seems to lean on our shoulder, to guide us through... Within this generously spaced novel of restless short paragraphs, such sections at times skate and scurry through the years, rather than digging deep. But there is also a gorgeous wooziness, and soft-boiled vulnerability, to some of Maurice’s memories, as well as the acute, sour sharpness of lust and jealousy, paranoia and self-loathing. And the more you find out about Maurice, the more you find out too just how intertwined he is with Charlie Redmond. Barry’s descriptions are often startlingly good. He slides words and images across one another, to create some new, precise image... [T]he book doesn’t cloy with stereotyped Irish folklore, thank god – but it does lend a shivery undercurrent. Or at least, a sense of how, in hard times, we inevitably seek explanations beyond our own human fallibility, and solutions beyond our own human limitations.
Many novels are turned into plays, but few plays are turned into novels. Kevin Barry’s latest book, which started life as a script for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, gives a clue as to why... [T]here is a lot of telling, not much showing. Barry writes with real exuberance. “Face on him like a bad marriage,” Maurice observes of a passer-by. But all the working-class Irish slang (jinky = cool; gaatch = face etc) and pickled wit can’t hide the flimsiness of the story. At times it reads like a pastiche of the Irish playwrights Samuel Beckett and Martin McDonagh, whose male double acts manage to be hilarious and threatening just by mooching about. Sure enough, the publisher is dubbing it “Waiting for Godot meets In Bruges”. But the bleak humour and lyrical zaniness seem forced, the promised violence rarely menacing. If this is Barry being his best bad self… well, it feels like someone coming to a fancy-dress party in a £29.99 gangster costume from Amazon... The dangers of turning a script into fiction are many and Barry skirts none of them. A novel needs interiority, an intimacy between characters and reader, a simultaneous conveyance of narrative and commentary. Barry does the bare minimum. There’s plenty of moping for lost times that are alluded to in only the most perfunctory way. And he relies too much on predictably collocated images of the beautiful and the ugly.
The story is a rollicking one, more In Bruges than Samuel Beckett, and it is briskly told, in short paragraphs, with a dark wit and deftly managed suspense. Barry’s reputation is as a prose stylist with a taste for bravura conceits: his first novel, City of Bohane (2011), was a western set on the Irish coast in 2053; Beatlebone (2015) reimagined a real-life trip made by John Lennon to Ireland in 1967. Here, Barry’s lyrical phrase-making – through the window of a sanatorium, Moss sees the ‘first swallows of the year darting across the patch of sky outside, drawing out their fast invisible threads’ – gives the book an elegiac air that is deliberately at odds with the violence of the events described... The passages in which the two old thugs sit waxing sentimental, high on their own eloquence, are the least engaging in the book. Barry may give Dilly some tart observations on the rough underside of her father’s loquacious charm (‘watch for the glamorous sentence that appears from nowhere – it might have plans for you’), but the tenderness he shows for his criminal subjects, however finely done, in the end feels misplaced.