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Wild Houses by Colin Barrett: Superbly observed world framed by crime-caper plot

Novel set in Ballina unfolds around characters who are abandoned, bereaved and trapped by circumstance

Wild Houses
Wild Houses
Author: Colin Barrett
ISBN-13: 978-0224099851
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

What if you took the generic framework of the crime caper and filled it up with the pathos of ordinary lives? Brought it as close as you possibly could to the textures of the real? The crime caper: think the novels of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. Psychopathic gangsters proving surprisingly articulate or sentimental. Slapstick brutality. Wiry plots. In affective terms, the crime caper is a close cousin of the formal satire: what fools these mortals be! Colin Barrett’s first novel wears the outward dress of a crime caper, but it is not a satire; it is not even satire’s close cousin. It is, rather, a delicate and beautiful book about the lives of lonely people on the fringes of small-town gangsterdom.

The small town in question is Ballina, Co Mayo, whose streets are marked by “the hangdog frontage of local businesses on their last legs”. The time is round about nowadays. High summer – the Ballina Salmon Festival is in progress: “A stilt walker in a rumpled suit and an oversized papier-mache mask fashioned to resemble the craggy features of an old man and wielding a papier-mache pint of Guinness the size of a violin case tottered spiderishly down the street in a pantomime of drunkenness.”

This suggestion of the carnivalesque is hedged around with irony: Wild Houses is a novel about stuckness. The clue is in the title. Everyone will call this book Wild Horses but the title means something specific: a wild house, known in Dublin as a session gaff, is a house in which the obliterative party never ends. Early in the novel the migraine-afflicted mammy Sheila English says of her drug-dealer son Cillian that he lives in a “wild house”. But a house, of course, can’t be truly wild, because houses stay where they are, as Barrett’s characters – abandoned, bereaved, trapped by circumstance – perforce, and at great cost, stay where they are.

The crime-caper plot is really just a framework, but Barrett engineers it carefully. Cillian English, a reformed drug dealer who now treats his suicidal ideation by raking a small Zen garden on his dining-room table, owes €18,000 to Mulrooney, his supplier. Mulrooney’s goons, Gabe and Sketch Ferdia, kidnap Cillian’s teenage brother Donal “Doll” English, and stash him in the basement of a local loner, Dev Hendricks. Cillian has until Monday to give Mulrooney back his cash or else.


In the standard crime caper, a gangster with integrity, or an honest private eye, would do jaundiced duty as our protagonist. But Barrett dislocates our view on things. His two viewpoint characters are Dev Hendricks (mountainous but gentle, and crushingly lonely) and the perceptive and empathetic Nicky Hennigan, Doll’s orphaned 17-year-old girlfriend. Dev and Nicky live ordinary lives: this is the point. Dev suffers panic attacks; Nicky works in a local bar, the Pearl, and dreams vaguely of escaping to university in Dublin. It’s through their eyes that we experience Barrett’s superbly observed world – a world that is, like a wild house, static without and turbulent within.

Barrett is obviously a writer who believes in the contained, achieved thing, in the manuscript nursed towards perfection over long months and years. He is, in other words, a Flaubertian – he doesn’t do politics or economics or social commentary or even, really, psychology (though he is gifted with a spooky empathy for people in pain). The Flaubertian novelist applies the most refined style to the grey old ordinary world, generating a startling tension between the fineness of the perception and the coarseness, or the ostensible unremarkableness, of the thing perceived. Wild Houses is echt-Flaubertian in this sense. It hews to the power of word-choice to catch reality in its subtle nets.

You could do worse than quote some of Barrett’s small miracles of precision, some of them taking the form of a single word: “a wind kicking in off the river to twice dash the flame of Flynn’s lighter,” where “dash” is the minor miracle; or the “jangling dentition of crockery crowding the upper rack” of a kitchen cupboard, where “dentition” is just the right side of fussy, its potential fussiness redeemed by the alliteration of “crockery crowding” and by the carefully modulated vowel-sounds distributed through the rest of the phrase. A taxi at night: “The bars of the street lights slid like code along its shining black windscreen and then it was gone.”

Barrett’s training in the short story – that symbolic mode – does show itself in the occasional too-obvious symbol: the deflated Umbro football stuck in the hedge outside the English’s house standing perhaps a bit too noticeably for the stuckness of the characters within, for instance. But this is a tiny quibble. Really, for page after faultless page, Wild Houses is sheer joy to read. The characters live, Barrett’s fictional world and its textures absolutely persuade. He’s the real deal. But then, we knew that already.

Kevin Power

Kevin Power

Kevin Power is a novelist and critic. His books include White City and Bad Day in Blackrock