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 Book of Science and Antiquities
"It would be a crime to give away anything more, but the end of this beautiful novel made me cry. Jones writes with intelligence and a lively wit, but there’s more — a warmth that forces you to care about these people as if you had met them...."
— The Times
3 out of 5
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.