That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

Kevin Barry is known for his short stories, and with good reason. It has been eight years since his last collection, Dark Lies the Island, so it’s a great pleasure to have a new one to read. The title of That Old Country Music is well chosen, because a sense of older rhythms of life runs through these tales of the west of Ireland.

The collection’s title story sees pregnant Hannah Cryan waiting in a van in the Curlew Mountains while her fiancé (fifteen years her senior) goes to rob a petrol station so they can elope to England. At least, that’s the plan.

As Hannah waits, nature wakes up around her and there’s the constant hum of traffic. Here, then, is the old country music, and a modern equivalent. Hannah also thinks about what might go wrong if her fiancé doesn’t pull off his plan: “Her man in jail and a child at the breast — it was all playing out by the chorus and verse.” There are patterns of human life ready to repeat themselves here, for those who can’t outrun them.

This idea is particularly prominent in the story ‘Old Stock’, in which a writer goes to visit his dying uncle, whom he hasn’t seen for many years — and the uncle tells his nephew that he’s going to bequeath him his cottage. At first, the narrator thinks this could be good for him: “Maybe the thin film of skin between me and the world would at last here be pierced.” But our man soon discovers that he’s not everything he’d like to be, and he starts to wonder if he has inherited more from his uncle than material possessions.

‘Ox Mountain Death Song’ sees a sergeant descended “from a line of guards” chasing down the scion of a notorious criminal family. This story has some good examples of Barry’s characteristically rolling prose:

He knew the bog roads, the copses, the cypress arbours. He knew the recesses of the hills and the turlough hides. He knew the crannies of the coast. He knew the new-build estates and the spread and bungalow drift of the ever-changing villages, and the backways of townlands, and the gardens of priests, and the old walled demesnses…

The sense of being rooted in the landscape is so vivid here. ‘Ox Mountain Death Song’ verges on the operatic, making a vast set-piece out of these two characters.

As well as a strong sense of place, there are some vivid characters in Barry’s stories. ‘Toronto and the State of Grace’ begins with the image of dead jellyfish strewn across a beach on a bleak December day. Into this grim scene comes a couple from Toronto — a woman and her middle-aged son — who light up the nearby pub with their chatter. They work their way through the spirits behind the bar, they can’t get Alan the publican’s name right… They have such presence.

But there are hints of darkness in the couple’s past, hiding among the banter. When life takes a sudden turn during the evening, we are left to wonder how these characters will carry on.

There are also twists and turns in the life of Seamus Ferris, protagonist of ‘The Coast of Leitrim’. Where so many of Barry’s characters are at home in their landscape, Seamus feels a  little at odds with his, due to his love of French film. He’s single in his mid-thirties, and wondering he’ll ever meet the right woman. But perhaps now he has, in Katherine, a Polish waitress at a local café.

There’s a wonderful ambivalence to this story. We may be sympathetic towards Seamus at first, but the behaviour that helps him find a way to Katherine’s heart is uncomfortably obsessive. Then the same obsessive thinking leads Seamus to doubt his relationship… It’s up to the reader to decide what to make of him.

If you’ve never read Kevin Barry before, That Old Country Music will introduce you to sentences, characters and places that are unmistakably his. If you have, it’s a chance to reacquaint yourself, a chance you shouldn’t miss.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Kevin Barry, That Old Country Music (Canongate, 2020). 978-1782116219, 192 pp., hardback.

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