There are times, reviewing fiction, that you listen to the better angels of your nature and sift through a mediocre work to stress the positives. There are, sadly, occasions where a book is something less than mediocre and there is no reasonable option but to swing the hatchet.
Then there are those rarest of moments: when you come across a novel that is so wonderful, so perfect, so inspiriting, that you worry you’ll adversely damn it with hyperbole.
Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier is, for me, in the last of these categories. It is the novel 2019 has been waiting for – a masterpiece delivered by a glittering talent at the peak of his powers. It leaves the rest of the class looking somewhat underpowered and unambitious, perhaps even a bit shop-worn.
The pair are Irish bar-room philosophers, lyrical, profane, wisecracking and ruminative,
Barry is no stranger to acclaim. His first novel, City of Bohane, won the lucrative International Dublin Literary Award. His second, Beatlebone, a beguilingly elliptical tale about John Lennon escaping the pressures of fame by relocating the west coast of Ireland in 1978, won the Goldsmiths Prize.
If Beatlebone was his breakout work, Night Boat to Tangier should cement the Irishman’s place among the literary elite.
It centres around two ageing and infirm gangsters, Charlie and Maurice, who are waiting at the port of Algeciras for a boat that may or may not contain Maurice’s runaway daughter, Dilly.