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Deliciously dark short stories
on 2 April 2012
"Dark Lies the Island" is a collection of 13 short stories from the gloriously dark and frequently very funny Kevin Barry. You can probably tell from that, I'm a huge fan of his work. Barry is one of the few writers who can be relied on to make me laugh out loud while reading his books, even when in public places. It can get you strange looks, believe me.
There's no clear theme to the collection, other than a dark take on those, often with fairly sad lives and a frequent, delicious dry humour, particularly in the dialogue of the characters. There's no fancy trickery of writing style here either. Each is a vignette of a life or situation that often leaves the reader wishing this was a longer tale, which is usually a strong sign for a short story.
Inevitably, some work more effectively than others. Stand outs for me were "Wifey Redux", a story of a father's struggle with his 17 year old daughter's emerging sexuality and a cautionary tale that it's probably best to stop reading local graffiti once your child reaches puberty, "Fjord of Killary", a story about a hotel frequented by a superb cast of locals including a man whose only conversational gambit is how long it takes to drive to anywhere, and "Berlin Arkonaplatz - My Lesbian Summer", a story of a young man's summer and sexual awakening at the hands of a Slavic photographer in Berlin.
Elsewhere, Barry presents some darkly surprising turns, such as the elderly couple of ladies who turn out to be kiddie-snatchers, an alcoholic doctor who finds some redemption with a group of travelers, a group of Liverpudlian real-ale drinkers whose hobby hides individual dark pasts that emerge on a trip to North Wales (recent winner of the Sunday Times short story prize), and a bizarre story of a drug dealer on the run who gets caught up in some particularly strange sexual adventures with an old man, his wife and her sister. The story from which the collection takes its title concerns a self-harming girl. Dark indeed.
There's nothing particularly deep or meaningful about this collection - and equally it's blissfully free of those short stories that make you go "huh?" at the end. It's purely about the entertainment of the individual tales. His subject matter veers towards the dark, often involving criminals, drugs and alcohol, and many are set in Ireland or feature Irish people.
Barry is like a slightly more risque version of Roddy Doyle, and that is no bad thing at all. Like Doyle, he brilliantly captures dialogue, both spoken and internal and has a great eye for the absurdities and often tragedies of modern life. But while with Doyle you have a sense of comfort about where the story is heading, with Barry you know to expect the unexpected and this unpredictability is often thrilling and usually darkly funny.