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Review: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

In the ferry terminal of Algeciras, on Spain’s southern coast, two middle-aged gangsters from Cork sit and wait. Maurice and Charlie have been tipped off that at some stage in the next twenty-four-hours Maurice’s estranged daughter Dilly will show up. They can’t be sure whether she will, or what she’ll do if and when she does. For now, they keep watch, and reminisce about their wild and violent past.

Night Boat to Tangier cuts from the ferry terminal to locations across Spain and Ireland, at various points between the mid-90s and the present day. Maurice and Charlie are no strangers to the sea routes between Morocco and Ireland, having smuggled hash along them for many years. Lately times have been hard on them though: ‘The men are elegiacal, woeful, heavy in the bones. Also they are broke and grieving.’

The gritty port-side setting is tense and edgy, and makes for a vivid backdrop to the gangsters’ dialogue. These conversations are by turns comical, philosophical, sentimental, and laced with the threat of violence. Towards the end of the first scene, Maurice and Charlie accost a passing English traveller to ask if he’s seen Dilly. They charm his dog and chat about football, but it’s not long before the threat is spelled out: ‘I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet… But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here.’

Night Boat to Tangier is Kevin Barry’s third novel. His first, City of Bohane, cemented his reputation as one of Ireland’s most inventive and exhilarating writers. A gangland thriller set in 2053, City of Bohane is futuristic and nostalgic, violent and tender, funny and sad, sometimes all at once. Barry’s second novel, Beatlebone, imagined John Lennon’s 1978 visit to Ireland. Barry conjures Lennon’s voice with uncanny accuracy, giving it unexpected depth and pathos, and he makes some bold choices with the novel’s form. To say any more would amount to a spoiler…

Alongside the two novels, two collections of short stories have been published, There Are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies The Island. In a quieter way, these are at least as impressive; they certainly show the breadth of Kevin Barry’s ability and imagination just as clearly.

Night Boat to Tangier is effortlessly readable, the pacing succinct and cinematic. Impressionistic images flash past rapidly. Descriptive passages are pared back to a few evocative details. Even the punctuation is economical: by leaving out speech marks, Barry blurs the lines between what his characters think, feel, see and say. The fluidity of his free indirect style quickly brings each character to life. This is true not only of Maurice and Charlie, but also of the three women in their lives, each of whom emerges as complex and convincing.

Kevin Barry’s first novel was a genuine ground-breaker. It was inevitable that Night Boat to Tangier would come freighted with high expectations and unfair comparisons. Each one of Barry’s books brings its own distinct pleasures though. His latest is funny, wistful, colourful, violent, tender and profound. It will stand with the best of them.

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