Night Boat to Tangier – Kevin Barry (by Barbara)
Kevin Barry believes in an economy of words. I love the concept and Barry has embraced it to the core for this novel. As a college professor, I constantly pushed this on my students, who thought more was better. I recently saw Barry (July 2019) in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in conversation with the Belfast-based writer, Jan Carson. He described his approach to writing, and in particular, the writing of this book. His process is to write and write and write, and then pull out the best parts. I often express my growing impatience with the proliferation of books that are grossly inflated, poorly edited, and too often veer into poor writing. This novel is the antithesis of this trend. Barry’s labor has resulted in a novel that provides gorgeous and profound prose, and a very moving story.
This novel is the story of an Irish father searching for his daughter. Maurice Hearne and his longtime partner, Charlie Richmond are in the port of Algeciras, Spain looking for Maurice’s estranged daughter, Dilly. Dilly, in her early 20’s, is part of a loosely organized troupe of 21st-century hippies who haunt the port, and cross back and forth to Morocco. They are involved in the drug trade, albeit on a small scale. In this respect, Dilly is a chip off the old block. Maurice made and lost fortunes dealing with heroin in Ireland. But despite his chaotic life, Maurice was a man who loved his family. Maurice was forced to leave that life behind to escape other criminals who’d be delighted to kill him.
The opening scene of the novel is a comical scene in the port of Algeciras as Maurice and Charlie try to ask about the ferry schedule at the information kiosk. Maurice and Charlie and their endless wait for the arrival of the ferry from Tangier may remind readers of Didi and Gogo in Waiting to Godot. But the resemblance is superficial. Barry’s deftness at creating humorous scenes is evident in this segment. The attempts of the two Irishmen to get anything (even acknowledgement) from the employee at information kiosk resembled collisions I’ve observed in Scottish tourism offices. Years ago, a Scottish friend warned me that tourist offices were known for not giving tourists information. They see their job as promoting local tourism and don’t want to help tourists looking to go to other parts of Scotland. On one occasion near Skye, I observed some Spanish tourists in the local tourism office looking for information. Pointing to their map of the northwest coast beyond Skye, they asked the tourist office employee what they could see up that way. The man told them “I cannae say” and “I dinnae know” – using a mix of Scots and English. The Spaniards were flummoxed and though tempted to intervene, I didn’t relieve their confusion. But I must add that I appreciate the Scottish approach to tourism, and it makes me laugh. It is worth knowing that the offer of information whether in Algeciras or Skye can be an empty promise.
The story shifts back and forth in time as Barry builds a portrait of a criminal who is not, at his core, a bad man. Maurice has a good heart and has done some very bad things. He dealt drugs in Cork and the surrounding areas, and his place to escape was the Beara peninsula. Maurice’s one true love was Didi’s mother, Cynthia, and he adored his daughter from the moment she was born. He spent years in Spain, in Málaga, Barcelona, and Seville on the run from Irish thugs, and these segments feature luscious prose. The segments describing the atmosphere of the Spanish cities were my favorites as exemplified in this segment set in Barcelona :
Outside the internet café, a gypsy kid and his girlfriend sold punnets of chestnuts from a roasting cart and kissed. They looked like the year 1583. The air was dark blue and had the smoke of old poetry at dusklight.
There are also some stunning descriptions of the Beara Peninsula:
This was the summer Dilly lit out for the territories late at night and drifted about the empty country roads alone. To be at the far end of the peninsula on a summer’s night with a paleness in the sky after midnight even – it was like a sad film about an island of the north. When you know at some level that you’re saying goodbye to it all. The loveliness of these bereft roads by night. The ferns in the ditches that were hardly moving but breathed in the warm night breeze, it seemed, and even spoke.
Barry also writes screenplays and like his novel City of Bohane, this novel is steeped with a cinematic vision. As an ardent reader and a lover of film, Barry gives me both in one beautiful package. Barry’s spot on the 2019 Booker Longlist is well deserved. This novel serves up Barry’s classic humor, and characters to care about, and is his best to date.