Monday, August 22, 2011

Review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape, 2011)

Forty years into the future and the once great city of Bohane, on the Irish west coast, is ridden with tribal factions fighting for power and control. For years, Logan Hartnett has been the godfather of the Fancy, unofficially ruling over the city and its various vice activities and maintaining a wary peace. Hartnett’s authority though is coming under challenge from within his family and the Fancy, and from the families on the Rises and a returning nemesis. To maintain his position requires all his cunning and savage skills as various feuds play out in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Kevin Barry is well known for his short stories. He has a vivid imagination and is an excellent wordsmith, crafting some lovely, expressive prose. City of Bohane has received high praise from some of Ireland’s literary stars such as Roddy Doyle, Joseph O’Connor and Hugo Hamilton. I therefore had high expectations for Barry’s first novel. With the exception of the prose and some of the characterisation, for me, it failed to deliver. For the most part, the characters are difficult to identify with and I couldn’t have cared less what happened to them; they're a bunch of scoundrels hooked on vice and violence. The tale has no back story. We’re forty years into the future, Ireland seems to have slipped backwards a couple of hundred years minus the colonial rule, and we have no idea as to why this occurred or the general wider socio-political landscape of Ireland or Europe. Rather we’re isolated in a fictional city, with the sea on one side and surrounded by bog otherwise, and all we have is a nostalgia for a ‘lost-time’ that’s never explained. The plot is wafer thin and is largely feuding clans seeking to remain in charge of the city. My sense when I got to the end was, ‘yes, and?’ Given the literary plaudits, I was expecting a lot more and yet there is no great sociological, political or economic unveiling, no sense of philosophical or theological reflection, no feeling that story served any purpose. Barry does manage to create some sense of place, but the city is very simply structured into five zones, lacking the complexity of a real place and it’s really not clear how large a town it actually is. It felt quite small town to me, certainly not a large city. There is also a first person narrator who drifts in very occasionally and seemingly with no purpose. Barry rightly deserves the plaudits for his ability as a wordsmith, and there are some very nice passages in City of Bohane, but as a novel length story for me it fell short of what it could have been.


Anonymous said...

Rob - Sorry to hear that this one didn't live up to your expectations. You make an interesting point about context and backstory. If they aren't there, readers are left wondering too much.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Hard to go from short stories to novels, isn't it? Wish I had started with the novel but all those writing classes didn'tpromote it.