Thursday, December 16, 2010

'There Are Little Kingdoms' by Kevin Barry

Were I a more prolific reader and book-blogger I would no doubt be inclined at this time of year to wax lyrical about my favourite book of the year. But I'm not, so I can't. Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, the very first book I reviewed here, would most likely take the crown if I thought about it. Though had Kevin Barry's debut short story collection There Are Little Kingdoms been released this year I would have had an awful lot to think about.
 It was, in fact, released in 2007 - leaving me mystified as to how it took until early this year for me to get wind of it. It appears to have had slow-burning success, garnering rave reviews and high profile admirers such as Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright on the way. It's a kick in the bollocks of a book, giving a stunningly accurate depiction of an Ireland that is so rarely portrayed well in culture, be it high or low brow. The Ireland of midlands ennui and petty personal victories. As soon as Barry launches into his first story, Atlantic City, you feel a surge of familiarity with the protagonist, Jamesie, king of the pool table and the pinball machine, a proud, bored fish in a slightly-too-small pond.
And so it continues from story to story. If you don't already know countless examples of these characters in real life then you certainly know they're out there, just a stroke of poor luck away from sitting beside you on a bus, or hitting on you painfully in a provincial nightclub. Donna and Dee, the restless and irritating twins of Ideal Homes provide a perfect example, somehow perfectly encapsulating the new mentality and morality that took hold just as the Celtic Tiger first stirred.
But if it sounds as though Kevin Barry has taken a harsh view of the people of these nondescript towns that dot the country then you'd be mistaken. His pages lack a sense of judgement, simply letting the characters be who they are, letting them reside in their own little kingdoms.
Read this to enjoy some side-splitting, heart-splitting prose, and to learn something you almost already knew about Ireland today.