A place should never for too long go against its nature.

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

City of Bohane is a swaggerer of a novel. It opens with that paragraph above, with one of the punchiest first lines I’ve read in a while, then we’re into prose with the rhythms of spoken word. That’s how you open a novel. No argument.


City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. It won him the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and favourable reviews nearly across the board. Not bad for what on paper at least is a fairly straightforward and highly cinematic noir-sf novel. It’s a reminder of a truth that always bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what a book’s about, what genres you can box it into or influences you can point to. What matters is if it’s any good.

The year is 2053 and we’re in the (fictional) Irish city of Bohane, named after the Bohane river and sitting on the edge of the Big Nothing bog. Ostensibly anyway, but in a sense none of that is true. In some ways the novel could just as well have been set in 1950s’ Cork, but then Barry would have had less freedom to invent, to make the familiar strange and new.

City of Bohane is set in 2053 because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular time (people use typewriters, not computers, nothing’s digital). It’s set in the City of Bohane because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular place (apparently he based the geography on Porto, in Portugal). This isn’t then a novel of time or place in the usual way, but rather it’s a dream Ireland, a movie Ireland. Barry is avoiding the limits of fact so that he can create a contemporary myth.

As I write this, it’s been around six weeks since I read Bohane. Since then I’ve read some poetry, a Kate Wilhelm SF novel, a Charles Willeford crime novel, an Elena Ferrante, a William Gibson and a volume of Proust. Even after all that, as soon as I turn my mind to it the characters and style of Bohane come rushing back to me, still vivid, still alive.

Logan Hartnett leads the Hartnett Fancy, a criminal gang that run much of Bohane with the bought complicity of the local politicians and press. He’s a tall and slender man, known as “the Long Fella”, dapper and deadly.

There’s been peace in Bohane, or as much peace as it sees, for a good few years now. That’s about to end. There’s trouble with the Northside Rises, slum estates run by their own semi-feudal gangs. They’re eyeing Logan and his territory with growing ambition.

At the same time, word has it that the Gant has returned, Logan’s old rival from decades back. Logan ousted the Gant from the city, and took the Gant’s girlfriend as his wife. Now Logan’s own lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker Burke, and the inimitable but much-imitated Jenni Ching, are starting to wonder if his heart’s in it any more and if not if there might soon be room at the top.

Think HBO. Think series like Deadwood or The Shield or Boardwalk Empire. Those are the influences here. It’s that classic set-up of the aging boss pressed on all sides and from below at the same time. Set up the box-set next to the DVD player, sit back and watch the peace explode.

If City of Bohane were just a highly cinematic novel of gang politics and violence in a fictionalised Ireland it might still be very good, but it probably wouldn’t be winning literary prizes. The reason it did is the language, which crackles.

Above De Valera Street the sun climbed and caught on each of the street’s high windows and each whited out and was blinded by the glare; each became a brilliant, unseeing eye. The light seemed to atomise the very air of the place. The air was rich, maritime, nutritious. It was as if you could reach up and grab a handful of the stuff. The evil-eyed gulls were antic on the air as they cawed and quarrelled and the street beneath them was thick with afternoon life.
Yes and here they came, all the big-armed women and all the low-sized butty fellas. Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bog-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 Steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel – of such combinations was life in the flatblock circles sustained. Here came the Endeavour Avenue suits for a sconce at ruder life. The Smoketown tushies were between trick-cycles and had crossed the footbridge to take joe and cake in their gossiping covens. The Fancy-boy wannabes swanned about in their finery and tip-tapped a rhythm with their clicker’d heels. De Valera Street was where all converged, was where all trails tangled and knotted, and yes, here came Logan Hartnett in the afternoon swell. He was …

That’s a long quote, but I included it because it captures the cinematic (the defining word of this review) feel of the book. Like a David Simon series there’s little explanation here, the reader has to work out the language and the slang from context as they go along. Where are the Back Traces? What exactly is Smoketown? Where is Endeavour Avenue in relation to all this? None of it is explained, but then none of it needs to be because as you settle into the rhythms of Bohane it all starts to come together and after a while the slang of Bohane, like the slang of Baltimore, feels natural.

Let’s take another example. Here a secular prayer by the unnamed narrator:

Oh give us a grim Tuesday of December, with the hardwind taking schleps at our heads, and the rain coming slantways off that hideous fucking ocean, and the grapes nearly frozen off us, and dirty ice caked up top of the puddles, and we are not happy, exactly, but satisfied in our despair.
It is as though we can say …
D’ye see, now, what it is we are dealing with?

No wonder Irvine Welsh liked it.

The book thrums with beautiful turns of phrase, though beautiful isn’t quite the right word, perhaps resonant would be better. Take a sentence like “A pair of goons were arranged in violent lethargy by its stairwell entrance.” I love that use of “violent lethargy”. It sounds contradictory, but it’s no mere linguistic trick because I can picture exactly what he means: A brooding intent, a casual inherent violence ready to be unleashed at the smallest provocation.

At times Barry almost takes it too far. I noted this sentence: “Emptied wine sacks filled every gutter and diamonds of broken glass – Bohane gemstones – sparkled on the sidewalks.” At the time I read it I was impressed by the imagery. Reading it cold now it looks overblown and dangerously close to bathos, but in context it worked.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Döblin used then contemporary cinematic techniques to inform his fiction (particularly montage). Barry does something similar. That first quote above is essentially a wide-angle take. Barry also makes frequent use of freeze-frame close-ups, particularly when describing clothing:

Wolfie wore: A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).

That’s fairly typical. When characters have been off-screen for a while, or something dramatic is about to happen, the action pauses and the text focuses in, describes in detail their clothes, boots, jewellery. Barry builds his world through accessories. What the characters wear is as important as what they do.

As you’d expect there’s some tremendous set-pieces. A gangland execution by Logan Hartnett is almost difficult to watch (sorry, read). A pitched battle between rival gangs is described entirely through photos being developed after the fact by a local journalist. The plot builds and thickens and as you get used to the characters in play Barry introduces a few more, each sharply drawn, so that by the end there’s a full and memorable cast.

The one drawback with Barry’s intensely cinematic world is that visual dramas tend to use shorthand, and shorthand tends towards stereotypes. People here are largely as you’d expect them to be. The Northside Rises are inhabited by semi-feral sink-estate dwellers straight out of a Daily Mail headline. The police are lunk-headed farmboys from the Irish interior. That’s all fine and works pretty well, but I was a little troubled by the “sand-pikeys”, a caricature of a traveller community straight out of a Mad Max movie speaking in cod-Jamaican patois and steeped in superstition and violence.

Ireland has a long history of discrimination against traveller communities, and “pikey” for those who don’t know it is a seriously offensive (and arguably racist) word. To have it used here for a group who seem to follow the stereotype is questionable, a little like a US novel featuring a group of casually violent but not very bright African-Americans. It’s not that you can’t do it, Chester Himes’ excellent Harlem Noir series has characters exactly like that (but not only like that). It’s just that when you put those characters in your book you are tapping in to some very unpleasant history and, potentially, prejudice.

Even with that potential sour note, this is still one of the freshest books I’ve read this year. It takes elements of SF, noir, and contemporary US drama and mixes them together as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner back in the ’80s to create something new yet strangely familiar. I’ll end with one final quote:

A demon vision was to be seen come nightfall. From atop the high dunes, led by Prince Tubby, came a line four-dozen strong of sand-pikeys, and they were armed for Feudin’.
Carried hatchets and iron bars and lengths of ancient fender and blackthorn sticks soaked in brine for the hardness and bricks and shkelps and rocks and hammers and screwdrivers and they carried these items with a lovely … insouciance.
Fucker Burke and Logan Hartnett kept to the rear of the line.
Fucker carried a forlorn and puzzled air.
Logan carried a length of rope.

Other reviews

Oddly I’ve not seen much in the blogosphere. If you know of any please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, there’s a great review at the Guardian here though, and a fairly critical review from novelist Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times here.


Filed under Barry, Kevin, Irish fiction, SF, Vernacular

22 responses to “A place should never for too long go against its nature.

  1. Alastair Savage

    I completely agree with you about the offensive nature of the word ‘pikey’. It would be especially bad if it were being used by an omnipotent narrator rather than a character. I’m not sure whether that is the case here from the quotes alone.

  2. That’s my fault. The whole narration is by a character within the fiction, though that character then uses omniscient voice (and it’s doubtful they’d have witnessed most of it) so it’s a bit of a blend of the two.

    It doesn’t hole the novel below the waterline for me, but it is iffy. To be honest, the whole “sand-pikey” bit seems to have wandered in from a nearby post-apocalypse novel that’s not quite as good as the rest of the book anyway. So it’s iffy and not as well done, which is an unfortunate combination.

  3. Tredynas Days

    I’ve come across the odd short story of his and liked them, and I like what I read here: some of those quotations fizz like Joyce on speed washed down by a tumbler of Bushmills. My reading is refracted at the moment through the literary lens of John Harvey, whose ‘Poetics of Sight’ I’ve just finished and am about to review: he focuses on visual metaphor, and I notice you mention how Barry describes with ‘wide-angle take’ and ‘freeze-frame close-ups’ – just the kind of narrative visualisation that Harvey examines so interestingly. He’d also concur with your assessment of the way Barry ‘builds his world through accessories’ – a kind of portrait-by-metonymy. I’m also put in mind, from your quotations from the novel, of Carver, who also employs a curiously detached but kind-of-involved narrative voice. Nice review, Max: makes me want to read the book: always a good sign.

  4. Thanks for the explanation about “pikey”, I needed it.
    How does it compare to Zoo City?

  5. Interesting comparison. I think Zoo City is more approachable in many ways. The animal thing grabs you from the off, and the situation is interesting. Zoo City though well written is driven though by character and plot, whereas this while it has vivid characters and an interesting plot is driven by language.

    In fact, that’s the key difference. The language drives this book, the setting in part allows the language to flourish. In Zoo City I’d say the language serves the text more, and the drivers are plot and character.

    No idea if this has been translated by the way, but if it has my hat’s off to the translator.

  6. “some of those quotations fizz like Joyce on speed washed down by a tumbler of Bushmills” Brilliant, I wish I’d written that. I do plan to read his short stories, having read this. Not sure if I’ll go back to the first collection or to the one he released after this. Do you have a view?

    I’ll be interested to see your Harvey review. I’m not familiar with it. Ages since I read Carver, interesting comparison again.

  7. ‘City of Bohane’ was my #3 book of the year in 2013. Here is my review.
    I thought it was spectacularly good even though I really did not understand the ‘Pikey’ reference. I am eagerly awaiting the next by Kevin Barry.

  8. Excellent review, Max, especially your references to long-form TV and cinematic techniques – they help to give a feel for Barry’s approach. The novel sounds great, but I’m not sure it’s for me if I’m totally honest. I’m running the risk of completely obliterating all the good work from TBR20 with new additions to the wishlist so I’ll pass on this one. Really enjoyed your review, though!

  9. If you liked this, then the short stories are must reads – his two collections are excellent.

    Funny, the more I read about Bohane the less inclined I am to read it. But SF / speculative has never been my constituency so that’s just my own reader bias.

  10. Tredynas Days

    Max, it was ‘Fjord of Killary’ in Dark Lies the Island that sticks in the mind: i heard it on a podcast – can’t remember which one; Guardian short stories I think. Also ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’, about a bumptious men’s day out. Don’t think I know any of the ones from the first collection. I loved the K Ridgeway review of this collection, btw: brilliant piece of lit crit – as you might expect from this guy, who is, perhaps, a better writer than the ‘reckless’ Barry…

  11. Sendra

    This sounds rather good. I certainly like the idea that Barry has freed himself by coming up with his own place and time. A sci-fi gangster novel. Not many of those. I suppose much of the genre can seem clichéd though I often find that unfair. The gangster world is a small world as most secret ones are and there are repetitions of actions and dangers in MURDER INC, say. But that is a documentary and so is not judged. Why should genre stretch out beyond what we actually find? Are you saying that the prose lifts it out of cliché or is there some freshness of plot? And do the Mad Max elements jar terribly or fit in well with the whole? Don’t get me started on George Miller. Visually brilliant but as for the rest . .

  12. A review I see I read and liked Tony, sorry I forgot it and thanks for the link. I agree with pretty much everything you say: “The argot of “City of Bohane” is an Irish lyrical miracle. Once you are in the rhythmic spirit of the language, you will be entranced.”

    Jacqui, glad to have helped unsell you on a book 🙂

    Ian, I would categorise it as SF, but some might not. The 2053 thing is more to avoid it being in a particular time than any serious attempt at placing it in the future. That said, there’s plenty of fantasy fiction over the years that has created a fictional world simply to have freedom from having to fit the story within the strictures of our own (Fritz Leiber’s famous creation Nehwon is simply Nowhen backwards for example). I do plan to read the short stories, probably picking some up later this year.

    Simon, thanks, I’ll look out the second collection first then. The Ridgway review is good isn’t it? Have you read any of his?

    Sendra, the plot is well executed and has its surprises, but that’s true of plenty of gangster drama so it’s not that which lifts it out of cliché, it’s definitely the language. The language is fresh. With plainer prose this would be an enjoyable and efficient SF-noir gangster drama, still fun but it wouldn’t have had nearly the attention it’s had, it would be a solid genre piece. It’s the language takes it beyond that.

    Personally I found the Mad Max bits a little jarring and over the top, but I wouldn’t say they were a mistake. Also, to be fair to Barry, a lot of the book is over the top particularly anything featuring Jenni Ching, so they’re of a piece with the whole.

  13. I was also linked on twitter to this excellent review, by Martin McGrath: http://www.mmcgrath.co.uk/?p=2138

    Worth reading if the book seems at all interesting.

  14. Tredynas Days

    All I’ve read of his is Hawthorn and Child, which blew my socks off! I think it was John Self on Asylum put me on to it: he raved about it, and i can see why. One of the most extraordinary novels I’ve read in ages

  15. I’m being incredibly dense. Hawthorn and Child is on my #TBR20 and I’m really looking forward to it, but somehow I didn’t make the connection.

  16. Tredynas Days

    Not to worry, Max; we all have these moments. I lost my staff ID badge today and had to get a new one made up. I think you’ll like H&C. Will be interested to hear your thoughts.

  17. Appreciated

    Sent from my iPhone


  18. It’s been translated into French by Pierre Girard and Martin Tatum. It’s published by Actes Sud which is in itself a proof of the quality of the book.

  19. Interesting. I do think this would be one to read in translation. It’s not only slang heavy, it’s invented slang heavy, and it makes a lot of use of the rhythms of speech. Must have been a hell of a translation task.

  20. Pingback: I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or to any set of beliefs. | Pechorin's Journal

  21. yo

    I found the the pikey / paveen / violent carribean angle pretty dubious (never mind the reference to Haitians) – the writing is fantastic but it’s a bit of an oul white lad’s plot all in all … the lads get all the inner turmoils while the ladies are pretty one-dimensional, business as usual under all the fancy prose, like

  22. Probably fair. I’ve read both his short story collections since and loved both, but Barry is a better writer of men than women (few of the short stories feature female protagonists, off the top of my head I can only think of the two ladies on an outing and they’re a bit unusual it’s fair to say…).

    I do call that bit out in the review, but probably not as strongly as I should have (I say that I was a “little troubled” which looking back isn’t an amazing thing to have written). The issue in part is that all the groups are very stereotypical, which is fine in part but can easily get pretty dodgy pretty quickly.

    Still love the language though and flawed as it is I still love the book. I’m one of Barry’s readers it seems.

    Thanks for the comment.

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