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Kevin Barry. Photo/Alamy

A thing of sad and menacing beauty: Night Boat to Tangier reviewed

Kevin Barry’s latest novel about a pair of veteran Irish crims is a poetic tale of love and violence.

Kevin Barry’s first novel, City of Bohane, won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award and his second, Beatlebone, won the Goldsmiths Prize. Night Boat to Tangier, a thing of sad and menacing beauty, was longlisted for the Booker.

The set-up is simple. Two Irishmen, lame Charlie Redmond and one-eyed Maurice Hearne, lurk in a Spanish ferry terminal, clutching flyers with the face of Dilly, Maurice’s beloved but runaway daughter. They’ve heard through the grapevine that 23-year-old Dilly may be passing through from Morocco and they aim to find her, using fair means or foul. Mainly foul, as Ben, an innocent young hippy type, finds out. This is Maurice apologising for his questioning technique: “First off, Ben? I’m sorry I bit your shoulder. There was no call for it. But I was badly brought up, you know? I didn’t have your advantages. I’d say your old man was an accountant, or something, was he? Or did he run a leisure centre?”

The hapless staffer in the información kiosk, with his “face like a bad marriage”, is also unhelpful to the two men. Two young dreadlocked women with a dog on a rope are accosted for information next. The Irishmen, roughly and laughably gallant, buy the women drinks. Knowing Dilly is living a similar wandering life, Maurice asks them what the attraction is. “It’s freedom,” one of the women explains. “It’s poverty,” Charlie says. “Poverty is always for free.”

These encounters, in the novel’s present, punctuate the men’s reminiscences of their pasts. There’s plenty to reminisce about. Charlie and Maurice were drug runners, fraudsters and, when their crazy logic deemed it necessary, violent thugs. There was a lot of money – Maurice says about his wife, “the sofas she had going on? She was going to Copenhagen for the sofas.” Then there was poverty when deals went wrong. They were addicts, too. And they were both in love with the same woman, Cynthia – Dilly’s mother and Maurice’s wife. Things got very ugly – the origins of the lost eye and the lame leg are described in detail that is not for the faint-hearted.

The love in this novel is as real as the violence. Barry pulls off the magical trick of making you care deeply about these men, even while you are repulsed by many of their deeds. They are humorous and vulnerable and movingly capable of abiding love. But they’re also venal, brutal and weak. This is not a novel of salvation, and, without giving everything away, it’s clear early on that whatever is good in their natures is unlikely to be strong enough to shape their fate.

The narrative flows smoothly back and forth from the present to the past and from Spain to Ireland, the jokes are seamlessly stitched in and the descriptions are exact, pleasing and poetic. But Barry’s real wizardry is in the creation of Charlie and Maurice – two unforgettable characters.

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry (Canongate Trade, $32.99)

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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