Black Water — A Review of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Jealousy for time spent, not spent, and misspent is at the core of Kevin Barry’s first novel, City of Bohane.  Barry explores the labyrinthine twists and turns of a dangerous west Ireland peninsular town, lovingly exposing the reader to Bohane’s underbelly.  He dredges the Bohane River’s taint, which makes itself known in the harsh brogue of his characters, and uncovers a world of violence overseen by cruel men and women who are constantly dragged back into the past.

Barry’s initial pages make for a difficult read, as he gives the reader no relief from the Bohane twist of language.  But, as the reader gives himself over to the smashed syllables and dropped consonants, he finds himself deep in the streets of Bohane—the city which is almost a malignant character in the novel, but one that also inspires the consistent melancholy and yearning for the halcyon past (that may have never existed) in the main characters.  The city sits astride the Bohane River, flowing from the Big Nothin’, a corner of near future peat bog abutting the Atlantic.  The river pours the endless frustration and desolation of the wilds into Bohane proper, influencing the city with its corruption.  Barry constructs a city of back alleys and high rises all tainted by the river and its constant flow—ever onward with little care for the darkness it leaves behind.

Barry’s narrator is invisible for much of the book, which leads to the reader’s sense that the narrator is the voice of Bohane itself—which, for all intents and purposes, is true.  His characters are mainly a rogue’s gallery of gangsters, bruisers, killers, and slumlords.  The reader meets the albino leader of the Back Trace Fancy, Hartnett, whose jealously sets the whole novel.  Along the way, the reader comes to know Hartnett’s past, but never too much, and never in a truly linear fashion.  Barry does a deft job at weaving in the pieces of memory, which float about Bohane like golden-lit late afternoons, with the grim dark today.  While reading, the reader never imagines the events of the pages occurring in clear daylight, but in the gloom of night, dark of taverns, and mist of the bog.  In this absence of light, Hartnett’s nemesis returns, leading to questions of whether the past is ever truly gone, whether it can be relived, or dragged forth into the harshness of the present.

Barry’s characters find different answers to these questions—for some, it is enough to live surrounded by the memories of the past; for others, they seek to re-live the dreams and deceptions of those they recently deposed.  Like the Bohane River, the past continues to flow away from Hartnett and company.  They strive for it, angry that it continues to slip away, and yet, in the end, the same Bohane awaits the next generation.

The reader of the City of Bohane will find the novel reminiscent of Gangs of New York or the fare of Guy Ritchie.  While the novel shares in the lives of knife-wielding gangsters as the former, and the dark British Isles-tang of crime of the latter, Bohane is a creation unto its own.  Barry writes a novel that is a nasty pleasure to read, much like the opium dens and whorehouses of the Bohane slums.

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