Through a Pint Glass, Darkly: Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry
Dark Lies The Island by Kevin Barry, out now in paperback (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
Headstone by Ken Bruen, out now in paperback (Transworld, £12.99)
These are interesting times for the short story. A form that’s been largely ignored by the British publishing industry over the years, it seems it is having a minor renaissance. That may partly be down to the rise in ebooks and self-publishing, which means individual stories can now be published and sold for pennies, or given away as tasters for collections.
There has also been a freedom brought about by self-publishing, in that authors feel they can attempt new things, not constrained by the mainstream market. A third reason may be that our attention spans have shrunk to the point where a few pages are all we can take in.
Whatever the reason, as a fan of the form, I welcome it. Loads of short story collections have landed on my desk recently, quality work from the likes of Jackie Kay, Jon McGregor, Nathan Englander, DW Wilson and Stuart Nadler, a healthy mix of British and American writers. For some odd reason, the short story has always been held in higher esteem in the US, maybe owing to the likes of Raymond Carver and John Cheever setting the benchmark for the form.
Another country with an affinity for shorter fiction is Ireland, and the finest new collection comes from there, courtesy of Kevin Barry. Barry began his career with an award-winning story collection in 2007, then wrote the hugely acclaimed novel City of Bohane. Dark Lies the Island marks a return to the short form and is already another award winner – his story Beer Trip to Llandudno recently winning the prestigious Sunday Times Short Story Award.
Barry’s work is beautifully crafted, written with pace and depth, and somehow simultaneously heart-warming and scathing. Throughout this collection, he tackles diverse characters on the edge of losing it, and does so with real empathy, but also with a keen eye for the ridiculousness of life.
In the opening story Across the Rooftops a nervous young man blows his chances with a girl he fancies as the two of them come down from a party. This story demonstrates Barry’s gifts for realistic dialogue and acute perception of the frailties of human emotions. Elsewhere we have unrequited love in the art world in Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer and a landlord on the verge of a breakdown welcoming the Biblical flooding of his pub in Fjord of Killary.
The quality of Barry’s writing is indicated by the fact that Beer Trip to Llandudno isn’t even the best thing here. That award goes to Wifey Redux, an excruciating, hilarious, heartbreaking story about a middle-aged man tortured by his teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and his own marital collapse. When you can deliver all that in just 20 pages, who needs novels?
The answer, of course, is we do! Especially when they’re as good as Ken Bruen’s new offering, Headstone. With 20 novels under his belt, the legend of Irish crime writing shows no signs of diminishing his rage against the world, courtesy of walking basket-case detective, Jack Taylor.
Full of gruesome nastiness in Taylor’s patch of Galway, Headstone is trademark Bruen: acerbic and bitter, with the blackest of dark humour slipping through it.
And another thing…
At the London Book Fair recently the chequebooks were back out after a period of austerity. Among those getting the fabled ‘six-figure deal’ were Ian McEwan, William Boyd, newcomers Sahar Delijani and Rosie Garland, and former CIA operative Jason Matthews.
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The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (1825)
Samuel Pepys (1825)
No diary offers more. Over a decade Pepys bore private witness to events such as the Great Plague and the Fire of London. Originally using shorthand, Pepys writes with unfailing intelligence and a knack for combining homely matters of 1660s life with vivid depictions of a city rocked by historical events. More amusingly, the frisky Pepys was also keen to recount a host of sexual encounters, much to the chagrin of his vexed wife. Coming across as a larger than life character, Pepys would undoubtedly be great fun to spend an evening with, but not be married to.