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Night Boat to Tangier: Kevin Barry's fascinating hybrid of poetry, drama and ferocious prose

Review: This is a remarkably achieved novel, full of language that opens up worlds

Night Boat to Tangier
Night Boat to Tangier
Author: Kevin Barry
ISBN-13: 978-1782116172
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £14.99

There are no words, at times, to describe what Kevin Barry does with words. In this latest novel, the Irish writer has almost invented a new genre, a fascinating hybrid of poetry, prose and drama. It is as if you are never quite sure that what you are reading is a line of verse, a sentence of fiction or a stage direction or, perhaps, all three.

Night Boat in Tangier opens with two men, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond waiting in the Spanish port city of Algeciras for the night boat from Tangier. They expect or hope that Maurice’s estranged daughter, Dilly, will disembark from the boat and that through the miracle of reconciliation they might find a way back to a time before the carnage of their adult life.

Maurice and Charlie are where Vladimir and Estragon meet Cork city, Beckettian gentleman of a certain age foxed by a merry-go-round of addiction and mental collapse but who still believe in the decorum of language to see them through the long nights of endless, frustrated waiting.

Barry brings a recurrent poetry to the scene of their nightly defeat: “Through the high windows there is an essay on the complicated light at the port of Algeciras. From the glare of the arclights, the lingering of pollutants and the refraction of heat left by the late October sun, the air is thick and smoky, and it makes the night glow a vivid thing, and dense. It is more than heavy enough for the ghosts that it held suspended here above us.”


And there are many of these ghosts. Maurice and Charlie are not sentimental tramps but hardened refugees from years of criminal dealings in Cork city and beyond that end badly with the familiar collateral of bankruptcy and broken hearts. If what they seem to be seeking from Dilly is some kind of redemption, one senses that in the waiting game the only real redemption is an unsentimental reckoning with what they have done and what they have become.

Ferocious irreverence

Not surprisingly, these closest of friends are also the deadliest of rivals. Cynthia, Dilly’s late mother, is one of the sources of contention between the pair. In one of the most astonishing chapters in the novel, The Judas Iscariot All-Night Drinking Club, the  two meet up in a drinking den in Cork city after Maurice has discovered the full extent of Charlie’s sexual betrayal. The orchestration of the chapter is mesmeric, an exquisite sequencing of events where every word teeters on the edge of explosive violence.

Nelson Lavin, the owner, is the watchful chorus in this dark drama, “He loosened the brass ring on his pinkie and circled it slowly and, that the night might hold on a mellow note, he rubbed a charm on the ring with holy fingers. But his gums were swollen, and this was usually a sign for Nelson that trouble was coming”.

Trouble does, of course, come in many different forms and both Maurice and Charlie have to contend with childhoods marred by the unhappy outcomes of suffering and mental distress. Barry charts this with appropriate sensitivity but there are no traces of miserabilism, the ferocious irreverence of Barry’s characters putting paid to any notions of emotional self-indulgence.

Going or staying

This is a novel largely staged near water – Algeciras, Malaga, the Beara peninsula, Cork city – and one of the themes that infiltrates Night Boat to Tangier is the sea as both barrier and refuge. Refuge because hope is always the other side of the horizon and barrier because the sea is also the ultimate obstacle to that hope, the dangerous stretch of water that becomes the untimely graveyard of migrant ambition.

If Maurice and Charlie always seem to be drawn to the sea it is in part because they are caught in that most typical of island predicaments – do I go or do I stay? – and what if the going becomes a form of staying (the memories of lost loves) or the staying a form of going (a nostalgia for missed opportunities)?

For Maurice, this is the perpetual Irish brain twister: “He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.” It is, of course, the extraordinary energy and intensity of Barry’s language that points to a way that opens up worlds rather than closes them down.

Night Boat to Tangier draws on the terrific vernacular energy in Irish English that is animating the best of Irish writing at present by the likes of Rob Doyle, Lisa McInerney and Colin Barrett. This is a remarkably achieved novel which shows a writer in full command of the possibilities of the form.

Michael Cronin is 1776 professor of French in Trinity College Dublin and director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation

Michael Cronin

Prof Michael Cronin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is director of Trinity College Dublin's centre for literary and cultural translation