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Sunday, 16 June 2013

City of Bohane - Kevin Barry - IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Winner 2013

The city’s mood was a blend of fear and titillation. There was going to be an almighty collision and a small world shudders when giants collide.

This novel’s so chunky you could carve it, y’check me? Imagine you could blend James Kelman’s “How late it was how late” with a hint of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a smidge of Nick Cave’s “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, a touch of Jon McGregor’s “Even The Dogs” and a whole bunch of Tom Waits. Set it in a dystopian future, use local (and unknown or invented) slang and have a bunch of anti-heroes about to enter a feud. That would only give you part of the concept.

“City of Bohane” is set in 2052 (you only learn that very late in the novel and the time this novel is set, was to me quite irrelevant) and centres on the ‘bino (tall white character Logan Hartnett who resembles an albino) who controls the degraded area. His flunkies consist of late teenage boys Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke and a cat suit dressed lithe Asian girl Jenni Ching. They frequent places such as the Ho Pee Ching Oh-Kay Koffee Shoppe speaking in slang and discussing the return of Gant to the area, Gant’s been gone for twenty-five years, was considered a future leader along with the ‘bino and was sweet on the ‘bino’s now wife Macu. Through this murky underworld runs the river of Bohane, black and bleak, along with bogs, the people from all parts of the city, the weather:

The Rises is a bleak, forlorn place, and violently windy. Too little has been said, actually, about living in windy places. When a wind blows in such ferocious gusts as the Big Nothin’ hardwind, and when it blows forty-nine weeks out of the year, the effect is not physical only but…philosophical. It is difficult to keep a firm hold on one’s consciousness in such a wind. The mind is walloped from its train of thought by the constant assaults of wind. The result is a skittish, temperamental people with a tendency towards odd turns of logic. Such were (and are) the people of the Northside Rises.

We also have gangs of sand-pikeys who keep kidnapped women in cages for “entertainment”, an angina effected editor of the local newspaper who has a thing for hairbrushes, the ‘bino’s mother Girly who lives on Jamieson’s and tranquilizers and spends her days watching movies from the 1950’s but still controlling the whole city, mysterious owners of numerous dodgy businesses and of course gang or clan leaders and more. This is a city on the edge, one that is ready to explode but as the opening sentence says: “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river”.

Daintily with forefinger and thumb he raised the ankle cuff of his trouser leg and dipped a Croat boot into the water to wash it clean.

Saw a red vibrancy mingle with the tarry brown of the bog water and so quickly disappear in the great mass of the river.

As you can imagine this novel is peppered with extreme violence and language, but amazingly it has humour, tenderness, lost love, grieving and humility. This is not an easy read, by any stretch of the imagination, and I did find myself re-reading numerous sentences or conversations, literally translating them into my own language as at times the slang and inflections are almost undecipherable. But I can guarantee the effort is worth it, Kevin Barry has created a dark world that seems beyond redemption, a place where human life is not at all valued, power and control are the measure of worth – along with your clothes:

Wolfie wore:

A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).

Of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlisted novels I have completed this was the standout for me, a change of pace from the raft of historical fiction that has been making the shortlists of late – a novel that will challenge and enthral you, another great work to come out of Ireland!!!

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Just a quick update on another award that was announced during the week. Tan Twan Eng picks up a further 25,000 pounds (to go with his Man Asia Award) for his Booker Prize shortlisted novel “The Garden of Evening Mists” – my review can be viewed here  - the novels he beat, the shortlist, for this award were:

Pat Parker – Toby’s Room
Thomas Keneally – The Daughters of Mars
Hilary Mantel – Bring Up The Bodies
Anthony Quinn – The Streets
Rose Tremain – Merivel: A Man of His Time

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide


Séamus Duggan said...

Good review. makes me want to read this next. Mind you I was already looking forward to it having read his short stories. Glad to have stumbled across your blog (via shared Twitter network).

Tony Messenger said...

Welcome Seamus and thanks for the feedback. I hope you are entertained by my posts as I work my way through a pile of literary lists.

Andrew Greene said...

I've just finished City of Bohane, and was very impressed by it. There's an inventiveness to the language that makes some of the passages read like poetry. His descriptions of the landscapes outside the city, for example, suggest he's been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy. Here's one that stands out:
'Smaller tracks lead from it [the Boreen] into the hills and onto the bog and down briary laneways peoples by haggard souls in damp cottages that sag with damp, and loss, and sadness. The rain fell hard as the boys grimly walked, and rain was no surprise to the place. A low bank of cloud had moved in from the Atlantic and broke up when it hit the foothills of the Nothin' massif. The bog was livened and opened its maw hungrily for the rain..'
The dialogue is also strong, and very recognisably Irish despite the presence of the invented slang terms, and it flows along quite nicely. Definitely a very fine debut and I get the impression that, once he's got another two or three novels under his belt, Barry will be a master.
Next up for me: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin, from the Booker longlist.

Tony Messenger said...

Thank you so much for your feedback Andrew - great to see a true literary aficionado logging in and commenting. Get to Dublinesque before The Testament of Mary - I'm sure it's more your style. (But then again you'll knock over Toibin's novel in one sitting).