There are some novels you find yourself reading out loud without even realising it, as you swirl the flavours of the language around your palate. This happened to me last night when I finally got around to opening City of Bohane and found myself still awake at five in the morning. I finished it this afternoon over a nice cup of tea in my pub of choice with people giving me funny looks as I voiced the speech of the characters.
It’s impossible not to do so with dialogue that jumps off the page, weird and vaguely familiar at the same time. It takes control of your tongue and commands you to speak. I have rarely read a book that manages to make language sparkle as it does in City of Bohane but Kevin Barry’s novel is that kind of book, an extraordinary blend of post-apocalyptic weirdness and Hell’s Kitchen gangster tale.
Here comes the second layer of weirdness, but it isn’t for everyone: just the denizens of this here borough. The city that is the book’s central character could be anywhere. It could be Marseille. It could be Liverpool. I could be Djakarta. It could be New Orleans. But it isn’t. It’s Limerick!
I know. Hardly a surprising discovery given that Barry grew up here, but it took about fifty pages before it dawned on me, which is probably very slow. I was never the quickest on my feet anyway, or on my dancers as the good people of Bohane might call them, but the language is pure Limerick dialect, mixed in with a bit of tinker-talk and the author’s own imagined speak, y’sketch? ‘Twould put the heart skaw-ways in you, as the old people used to say and as Barry remembers. Is there e’er a chance ye might recall it yereselves? Ironically, this kind of speech is far from traditional Irish, having its roots in the English spoken by the Elizabethan soldiers sent to quell this uppity little island, and preserved by centuries of urban Irish people until little more than a generation gone by, when young people started to speak like Yogi Bear.
Oddly, my personal insight into the language is a handicap. Someone unfamiliar with the argot will be entranced, captivated and ensnared by the dialogue. It jumps and it sparkles.
This is a book of gangs, of psychopathic dandies, of turf wars, opium dens and grim deeds carried out in the half-light of an August murk in off the sea. Barry has realised that you can’t just write a post-apocalypse novel without changing the way people talk, precisely as Russell Hoban did when he wrote the wonderful Riddley Walker, and so he created a new voice for the people, yet a voice that sounds utterly familiar.
Far to the north are the poppy fields, disregarded by a corrupt and degenerate hoss polis, a force ready and willing to accept bribes and inducements. You learn that only some world routes are still open. Mobsters can buy their high-topped boots from Zagreb and their wine from Portugal, but for most people, life is grim.
His touch is so light that you never quite know what disaster befell this Ireland of the 2050s. You can see the disused pylons everywhere. You know that everything is powered by generators. The streets are lit only when the Authority can afford it. You realise there are no cars, no mobile phones, no computers, no email and no guns. People write to each other, and when they wish to commit homicide, they do so using shkelpers: knives. Shkelp, a wonderful North of England word, kept alive in Ireland and reimagined by Barry. Even the most powerful mob boss must walk in the biting wind and the rain, for there is no other means of transport except the foot. This is not the world we know.
And yet, this weird and strangely familiar town is the place they choose to be. They could take the High Boreen to the Big Nothin’, or even the Nation Beyond (known as the NB) but they don’t.
I recognised individual characters and whole families from local knowledge, which provided a wry insight. Having done a little bit of this kind of thing, I know that an afternoon in the public house can have a wonderfully clarifying effect on the creation of a character, but general readers are probably better off lacking the home-town knowledge, to preserve the feel of the story.
Barry takes a bit of here and a bit of there to create Bohane, and it all reminded me of Myles Na gCopaleen’s Corkadorcha in the Poor Mouth. I’m sure Kevin must have read Myles/Flann/Brian, just as I’m sure he looked to Blade Runner, Once Upon a Time in America, Mad Max, perhaps Riddley Walker and many more besides but he went one step further than most. Just like Stephen King, Barry realised something that only the best practitioners know: you have to leave them wondering, and he doesn’t provide all the answers. He just plants the questions. This city of Bohane doesn’t seem to be a direct projection of 2011 Ireland, even if the apocalypse occurs. There’s too much weirdness. Something else is going on.
This city of Bohane is in a parallel reality, close enough to be familiar, yet sufficiently removed from us to be entirely alien and terrifying. It’s not an offshoot of our current existence, but a strange and menacing alternative universe. You wouldn’t want to meet any of this book’s characters in real life.
My conclusion? Wonderful. Years ago I gave up caring if something is good literature. Is it a good read? That’s all that matters, and this one is a big thumbs up. It cost me a night’s sleep.
I hate Kevin Barry. I’m consumed by jealousy at his gift for language. I want to track him down and eat his liver.
I’d say he had the greatest laugh of his life writing this book though, y’heed?
How we now, Kev?