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Homesickness by Colin Barrett: warmth, wit, wisdom and a way with words

Book review: Mayo author writes with expansiveness and relaxed control in his second collection of stories

Author: Colin Barrett
ISBN-13: 9781787333819
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £14.99

“That’s the thing about Mayo,” says a character in Colin Barrett’s second short story collection. “I find it’s very presentable from a distance. It’s only up close it lets you down.” This isn’t true for the author’s work, which excels when it comes to the intimate and the granular.

Homesickness arrives eight years after the Co Mayo author’s multi-prize-winning debut Young Skins, and is full of characters who want to get away: either from their small towns, the open country or from something existential. In The Ways recent orphan Pell has stopped going to school. Sitting on the bus to collect her brother who has been suspended for fighting, she meets boys of her own age. They have skived off only to find they’ve even less to occupy themselves, and are now going back. “Dossing gets boring, you know, trying to come up with stuff to actually f***ing do.”

Generations of absentees and future absentees, people who have been abandoned by one parent or another for whatever reason, populate the collection along with tearaways, benign and troubled. In The Alps three brothers seen locally as gregarious ne’er-do-wells with the “capitulating hairlines of middle age”, act heroically in a rural bar when a young man with a sword walks in. The strangely charming altercation that unfolds teaches them something about brotherhood.

Elsewhere, a poet who makes money selling pornographic cartoons writes about a suicidal impulse without having felt one. “Not being able to feel crushingly terrible made him feel terrible, but even this second order of terribleness had, to his inquisitive mind, a compelling textural quality.” Suicide is a real presence in Whoever is There, Come on Through, where a woman called Eileen observes her childhood best friend Murt trying to put his life back together after discharge from a mental health facility.


The stories in Homesickness naturally drift along, focus on the everyday and tend to conclude undramatically or in an open-ended manner

Barrett is a young author but he writes with the expansiveness and relaxed control of his wisdom that tends to be a feature of late assurance. (Any criticisms of style I had weren’t due to words out of place but a cautious polish in the revisions that have been made since some of these stories first appeared in magazines.) Descriptive facility is everywhere: a pub table “honeycombed with empties”; a kitchen “humid with cooking”; the “sagging diagonals” of a goal net; old women that “smelled like the inside of kettles”. Cold air from a door spreading “like a clear thought in [a] warm room”.

This would be less meaningful if it wasn’t backed up by warmth when it comes to selecting the detail. An old man on an oxygen tank in the pub can be called “by this stage of things a big watery bag of imperilled organs”, then gifted an engaging personality and soul without there being any dissonance. Barrett’s tone can be cutting in a satiric mode without being ungenerous or intolerant.

In that the stories in Homesickness naturally drift along, focus on the everyday and tend to conclude undramatically or in an open-ended manner, Barrett might be called a “quiet” or “gentle” storyteller. But he also packs in a lot of incident, and his stories bristle with reasonably busy cast lists. It almost feels as if whole novellas or even novels fit snugly inside. Barrett said in a New Yorker interview about one, “I tend these days to leave out as much backstory as I can, to see how much of a character you can get across in the living field of the directly depicted moment”. On the contrary, I found backstory at times to be rather over-extended, and Barrett could have gone further in removing an almost omniscient aspect of the narrative and some of its mechanics.

The one story here that escapes Mayo, The Low, Shimmering Black Drone, is set in Canada, where the author lives now and where he was born. Dog-sitting during Covid lockdown in Toronto for a famous writer who once wrote a book that now seems prescient, a second writer called Sean Mullen is trapped within a claustrophobic, self-defeating idea of a novel about his alcoholic father.

It is a formally interesting wildcard, with the multifaceted energy of the German author Daniel Kehlmann: slightly postmodern but extremely accessible and energetically readable. This could hint at a rich future avenue for the writer. (His first novel is set to be released next year.) Away from Mayo, Barrett and his writing seem free to have a different kind of fun. But when it comes to thinking about his homeland, distance could even be said to have made it more vivid.