Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Thanks to Canongate for letting me have a review copy of Kevin Barry’s newest collection That Old Country Music, via NetGalley. That Old Country Music is due out in October (22nd) and I have given it 5 (five) shiny stars. Read on to find out why…

The blurb

A new story collection – full of love, melancholy and magic – from the Goldsmiths Prize and IMPAC award-winning author of the Booker-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier

Since his landmark debut collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, and his award-winning second book, Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry has been acclaimed as one of the world’s most accomplished and gifted short-story writers.

In this third collection, That Old Country Music, we encounter a ragbag of west of Ireland characters, many on the cusp between love and catastrophe, heartbreak and epiphany, resignation and hope. These stories show an Ireland in a condition of great flux but also as a place where older rhythms, and an older magic, somehow persist.

Barry’s lyric intensity, the vitality of his comedy, and the darkness of his vision recall the work of masters of the genre like Flannery O’Connor and William Trevor, but he has forged a style which is patently his own.

My review

In the stories of Kevin Barry’s new collection That Old Country Music, there’s often an air of loneliness and dissatisfaction. For every character there’s a feeling of heartbreak coming or just gone, which is appropriate, as Barry manages to encompass entire life tales in the straightforward telling of a few events. No matter whether the tale stretches from train ride to full life (‘Roma Kid’) or takes place in a few short hours (‘This Old Country Music’, ‘Toronto and the State of Grace’) there is the feeling that one has gone on an immense journey from A to B (with C continuing well beyond the last word) and, crucially, enjoyed it. Barry keeps a light and humorous touch in the bleakest situations, with a kind pragmatism to the summing up of each character’s quirks. His descriptions of people, landscape, items, even, are succinct but cinematic – the hills fair roll out in front of your eyes.

Throughout there’s also the sense of inevitability. The characters in these stories make their choices – of course they do – but often with the sense that their fate has been decided no matter what they do: the world has a role that must be filled, by someone – whether that is the death-caller of ‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy’; the cottage Don Juans of ‘Old Stock’; the watcher of the Canavans in ‘Ox Mountain Death Song’; the fooled lovers of ‘St Catherine in the Fields’ and title story ‘That Old Country Music’ – and they must be the ones to fill it, even as much of the story forewarns them of the shoes they are stepping into. In the context of this reading, the narrator of ‘Extramedura’ seems to be what remains of one of these other characters, doomed to watch the tale they once were in play out again and again, fulfilling the promise of heartbreak coming and going with closing lines to so simple and sad that they’ll make you want to put the book down and sigh for a while.

All of this is the mark, as you’d expect from Barry, of a writer with absolute control over his stories. I wanted to wallow in the world he’s created here, one that’s old and new, peopled with the bleak and beautiful. What struck me most, though, is the kindness of the collection – the events that take place are not always kind, but there seems to me to be a sweetness and warmth of feeling throughout, a belief in the basic goodness of the world, even when it’s bad. Loved it.

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