Night Boat to Tangier
By Kevin Barry
Canongate Books (HB, 214pp)

Review by Dave Young

Charlie Redmond & Morris Hearne, drug dealers and users, late of Cork, wait into the night at the Algeciras ferry terminal, ostensibly searching for Dilly, Charlie’s 23-year-old daughter returning from Morocco. Fading gangsters, heavy-duty criminals, united in shared and often bitter experience. A physiologically and psychologically damaged double act, literally partners in crime, despite age and ailments, a threat to others and themselves. 

While they wait the pair talk, baring and searching souls, their lyrical dialogue slowly revealing the men’s backstory. Largely a two hander and frequently theatrical in its structure Night Boat to Tangier began as a play, commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, before transmuting into a skilfully crafted tragi-comedy of terrors.

Long-listed for the 2019 Booker prize its author, screenwriter and playwright Kevin Barry, previously won the Goldsmiths Prize for Beatlebone – another fiercely original novel. At once wry, funny and blackly comic his writing contains stylistic nods to Becket – but this emphatically is not Waiting for Godot. The language throughout is a delight, with elements of descriptive prose reminiscent of Dylan Thomas at his Llareggyb best:

At the port of Malaga the night sky was bled out pale, and the anchor lines and the rigging of the off-season yachts made a nervous chatter in the breeze.

Set in Spain, soaked in the spoken rhythms of Ireland, the story also makes surprising narrative excursions into Irish mysticism and the supernatural. Written predominantly in short paragraphs this novel delights in extending the possibilities of language and conversation:

“I fully accept there’s a thing called love,” Maurice says. “Haven’t I been all of my born days up to my sucker eyeballs in it? And there’s sentimentality, which is all tied up with the love and the loss, there’s grief and the longer we go on, the more of it we’ve the burden of”. 

“It accretes”, Charlie says, “like a motherfucker, out of control. Does the old grief.”

A lack of quotation marks and the cadence and pace of Barry’s rhythmic prose take some initial effort to accommodate, but ultimately you’ll wish the story were longer. This is my fiction book of the year and could make a wonderful literary Christmas present.

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