Kevin Barry to date has graced us with two novels and two collections of short stories, and while it is the most recent publication that will be reviewed below, all are entirely and wholeheartedly recommendable. My first encounter with the Limerick native’s work was through his second collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island, (2012) and like the first cigarette to an addict, the bastard had me. There’s such a rich variety of material captured in these small tales, most humorous but all undeniably relevant. And while not all the stories are based in Ireland, all settings are authentic and characters engaging; the experience, no doubt, of a well travelled individual. I quickly devoured his debut collection of short fiction and afterwards his debut novel – City of Bohane – a piece of literature that is well and truly dripping with originality. This then leads us to his most recent publication, winner of the IMPAC Award, Beatlebone (2015).
For those unfamiliar with the story-line, it revolves around Barry’s depiction of John Lennon’s trip to the West of Ireland in 1978, to visit an island the singer had purchased there (or had purchased for him) – Dornish Island, found off the coast of Clew Bay, Co Mayo. The novel tells the fictional tale of Lennon’s travels to the West of Ireland, and the comical and comforting relationship he forms with a native there, who evidently escorts him to the island while sheltering him from both press and public exposure. Beatlebone tells the tale of Lennon’s trials and tribulations while battling the elements of the west coast, along with his own personal demons.
At the heart of Beatlebone is Barry’s honest and effortless wit. This is perfectly executed through Lennon’s developed relationship with a droll and trustworthy native, Cornelius. Both characters bounce off each other with comedic conviction, and despite obvious differences, form a close bond over the course of the novel. Barry’s characterisation of Lennon is extremely natural, something that he developed through watching interviews with Imagine singer during the late 1970’s and listening to Beatles albums on repeat. He avoided prior biographies for fear that these texts would result in him butchering the character. As well as this, the writer visited the island, bringing with him an arctic sleeping bag, food, writing materials, a phone for emergencies and a bottle of whiskey, something Barry draws upon for a chapter in the novel. The result is an extremely well rounded and perfectly eccentric portrayal of a fictional Lennon.
As evident from his brief period spent on the Dornish Island himself (a day and a half in total), throughout Barry’s work, location is a driving force. Capturing the essence of a space is key to the writer. In allowing us to view rural Mayo through the iconic lens of Lennon, his comical escapades become mystical and disorientating. He converses with dogs as well as the Atlantic Ocean. He rants, drinks and ponders the effectiveness of Primal Scream Therapy. It portrays an odd individual in an even stranger place and the result is utterly fucking bizarre to any reader.
Bold and inventive, Beatlebone is rich, refreshing and surprisingly endearing. Through Barry’s vivid imagery and imagination, he has captured and recreated a character and by throwing it into such an eerie and ghostly setting, he allows the story to unfold, unforced – moving by its own accord. So forget Netflix for a second, grab a coffee and this book, sit back and let Barry work his magic. James Holohan