The past will not relent.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 30 August 2019
Two fading Irish gangsters sit in the lonely waiting room of the port of Algeciras at midnight, waiting for the night boat to come in from Tangier, or for the night boat to go out to Tangier, on the 23rd of the month. They are Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond of Cork. They have been here before, always on the 23rd of the month. It looks to be a long night.
Drug smugglers, life has been good to Maurice and Charlie, and, at the same time, cruel, perhaps even merciless. For Maurice Hearne’s daughter, Dilly, aged twenty-three years, has been missing for the past four. She’s a perroflauta, the Spanish term for a dreadlocked crusty, from dog and flute. And the perroflauta like to winter in Africa, where it’s warm, but they cannot take their beloved pets with them, so the dogs are kept communally on the Spanish side of the Strait of Gibraltar, changing hands and owners as the ferry to Tangier comes in and then goes out again, and so the port of Algeciras makes for the perfect location for Maurice and Charlie to spot Dilly, or at least to gather information on her, information which might lead to a broken family reunited.
At first we think Night Boat to Tangier could be a one-act play: a single space, two main characters, a shifting procession of extras that come and then go, the dialogue almost completely Maurice and Charlie’s, in their highly entertaining urban-culchie Irish vernacular, their command of Spanish less than minimal, their interactions with the transient perroflauta at first friendly and then menacing, in typical gangster style. But then we move to the flashbacks, going back a quarter of a century and spanning continents, Maurice and Charlie’s shared history, tragedy, success and failure and violence and heroin. A woman in common, Dilly’s mother, Cynthia. A fairy fort sabotaging a potentially lucrative construction project. And we have a novel, we have an excellent novel, oh yes.
The first crusty to fall victim to Maurice and Charlie’s unpolished and pendulous interviewing technique is Benny, who’s from the southwest of England, and at first it seems as if he genuinely knows nothing, that he’s no more than a hapless passer-by. But as Maurice and Charlie pummel Benny for information, gently and then more insistently, and more is revealed, we begin to wonder whether there is more to Dilly than the ostensibly expected tale of a young woman from a dubious and unconventional and itinerant background falling in with what might be deemed by some as the wrong crowd, dropping out of society, disappearing from view, never to return.
I’ve read all of Kevin Barry’s previous work, and I’ve loved it all – until now the two collections of short stories more so than the novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone – but Night Boat to Tangier seems to me to be a leap forward, brief as it is, and I was pleased as punch to see his name featuring in the Booker Prize longlist, as well as the Not the Booker. There is a spellbinding and hypnotic poetry to his work, even in City of Bohane, which I did find a little difficult at first, but was rewarded upon persevering, and none of it is to be missed. We need more writers like Kevin Barry, writers who can wind us in with their tales, who can take us away to another place, however alien to us his characters and settings and mise en scène might at first seem. Four stars.
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