Maurice and Charlie are both Irish, they are both in their fifties, and they are both dressed in cheap suits waiting at the Spanish port of Algeciras. They seem to be locked into a perpetual never ending conversation, jumping from stories of their past with the casual ease of long-time friends. One will start a sentence, the other will finish it. One will ask a question, the other will answer it. The reader will find it obvious from their demeanour that they are gangsters, crooks, men accustomed to violence. It is also only a short wait before we find out that the pair are looking for a young girl named Dilly Hearne, and that they are expecting to find out something on this day, at this port about her whereabouts.
She is either travelling to Tangier, or returning from Tangier, whichever it is, Maurice and Charlie have been told by a man from Malaga that it will happen today, the 23rd of the month. They find a young man named Benny and his dog, and, with veiled threats promising furtive violence, they find out from Benny that he may know something about Dilly’s location. Being Irish gangsters, Maurice and Charlie decide to take Benny to the nearest pub to find out more. Maurice tells Benny that Dilly is his daughter and has been looking for her for three years. Once in a more secluded area, the furtive violence emerges from hiding and Benny knows that he is in deep trouble.
The second chapter will jump back in time to the 90’s with a lone Maurice meeting a man who gives him a piece of paper after he has written the number of a bank account on it, all the while warning Maurice to forget going through with whatever he plans to do. The man is clearly shaken with fear and there is no uncertainty that whatever Maurice is planning it will be fraught with danger.
So the novel is really two narratives, one set in the present, with Maurice and Charlie looking for Maurice’s daughter, and one set in the 90’s which is used to present Maurice and Charlie’s early years and how they became the men they are in the present narrative.
Late in the novel, we see the narrative from Dilly’s perspective and get an insight as to why she has run away. Her fears that she may become like her father and fall into the same way of life, and perhaps something else.
The novel, is however, predominantly about Maurice’s life, told through his conversation with Charlie in the present, and the alternate chapters which take part in the past. For me the strength of the novel are the conversations, they are so wonderfully written. I could imagine the Irish accents as I tried to decipher some of the slang. Yes indeed, the Irish slang flies thick and fast. What is it about the Irish language that makes it so readable?
Maurice is such an interesting character. He seems to have been at war with himself his whole life. Battling his urges and lusts. Lusts for drugs, lusts for sex, lusts for anything but idleness and boredom. Much of his life has been in torment. He questions his character, and as he gets older starts to think about his mortality. He feels that finding his daughter may be his redemption.
This is a brilliant short novel. How Barry squeezes such a narrative into such a small page count is tremendous. 4.5 Stars!
Kevin Barry is an Irish writer. He is the author of two collections of short stories, and the novel City of Bohane, which was the winner of the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
There is a wonderful interview with Barry talking about his novel here - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/22/kevin-barry-interview-night-boat-to-tangier