Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Aug 18th, 2020, 12:26 am

TITLE: Night Boat to Tangier
AUTHOR: Kevin Barry
GENRE: Fiction / Crime
RATING: ★★★★☆


It’s been a strange few months in our pandemic-filled world, and what better time than now to read Night Boat to Tangier? The short novel is about two old Irish gangsters sitting in a Spanish port, reminiscing about life while they look for one of the pair's missing daughter who they believe will pass through the port at some time that night.

Night Boat to Tangier was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2019, and rightly so – it’s a great read. I did not read any of the other novels nominated for the 2019 prize, but Kevin Barry’s novel is surprising, fun, thought-provoking, and well-crafted; my kind of novel. Barry utilizes a very unusual yet concise writing style and produces in this book an extremely readable 224 spare pages, making the novel a very fast read indeed. In fact, I read the whole thing over the course of a week at work in between jobs.

What struck me most about the novel is the way the author uses such precise language; it feels like he suffers over each word. But instead of making his work dense, he clears his pages out, he clarifies, sharpens each sentence, which produces a rich, fairly easy read — particularly easy for a Man Booker finalist. Night Boat to Tangier is like a poetic gangster movie, at once violent and profound, set to modern classical music. Read the following excerpt for a taste of his writing style...
"The motions of the alcohol are familiar: the easy warming, the calm sustain, and now the slow grading into remorse. A melancholy hour falleth. As afflicts a gentleman of colourful history."

Kevin Barry has said he takes a lot of his inspiration from modern prestige TV shows, such as HBO's Deadwood. As quoted from a New Yorker article, “He seems to have intuited that if television could get ahead by learning from the novel, then the novel might push back by learning from television.”

You feel the influence of prestige TV in his writing, particularly his excellent dialog. The varied cast and existential themes also help to prove that point.

Night Boat to Tangier is at moments extremely dark and morbid but is also consistently comic, at points even hilarious. As a teenager, I would spend my summer holidays working with my Irish uncle and his builder friends and, from my observations, there is a turn of phrase only the Irish can master. An example...
“Karima waited at the bottom of the road in her small Japanese car. She drove fucking hairdryers, always.”

Apart from employing a unique style and comic but never cartoonish characters who have, as the narrator says, ‘colourful pasts’, the novel is at once slowly brooding yet simultaneously full of action typical of the crime genre: chases, interrogation, fights, and danger. The main characters Maurice and Charlie spend a lot of their lives as young men on the run, trafficking, making huge sums of money and doing heavy drugs, and the after-effect of their actions reverberate throughout the rest of their lives, and the lives of their family and friends. The most profound effect, and really the essence of the story, is the effect this path of darkness has had on Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Maurice and Charlie are quite desperately looking for her. They are trying to make good the relationship they both destroyed, trying to assure themselves that they deserve redemption of some kind, even in the form of simple reconciliation. Yet, as Shakespeare wrote hundreds of years ago, ‘These violent delights have violent ends.’ Tilly had a pretty horrific childhood, really. An example of Tilly’s life as a child below...
“They were hammering into the Powers, the John Jameson, it was breakfast from the bottle and elevenses off the mirror. The child would as well be raised by the cats that sat lazily in what April sun troubled itself to come across the rooftops of Berehaven.”

Their violent lives reveal Maurice and Charlie as old before their time and the novel is told through a clashing cacophony of memory, through the cities of Ireland, England, Spain, and Morocco. One beautiful aspect of the story-telling is how Ireland itself is also an entity in the novel, almost a character in itself.
He parked the car and got out and felt the evil of the cold damp air. He listened to the ghosts of the wood. He arranged his face for Irish weather. This was not to be under-estimated. He scrunched his eyes against the wind. He twisted his mouth against the rain. Take these gestures and repeat them, times ten thousand for the life, and times the generations, and times the epochs and the eras, and see how the effect digs beneath the skin, enters the racial soul, prepares its affront to the world, and offers it – the King-of-Seville, the King-of-Seville – he made the words on his lips to seek calm, but the refrain was lost to the whipping wind, the assaults of rain.

At times, the novel becomes an eerie, ghostly, unflinching story about wasted, failed, destructive men and their country, about people linked together by love and vice, by history and misunderstanding. At other moments it explores the life of a missing daughter who is desperate to escape her parent’s heavy shadows.
She was not wrong – the mind designs the body.

"The mind designs the body"... A choice made within our minds designs the future of our bodies and the lives of our loved ones. Our stories are not told in one moment but can be set on irreversible directions by our choices, and the choices of our parents. While happy writing within the edges of the crime genre, Kevin Barry is searching for something else in his short novel. I took up Night Boat to Tangier soon after reading Barry’s excellent short story collection Dark Lies the Island; I find both books to be varied memoirs of sorrow, the pain of loss, and the beautiful richness of the future.

If you were looking for a novel that transports you to another world full of rich language and interesting, violent, charming characters, then Night Boat to Tangier should be top of your reading list. I recommend it.
Aug 18th, 2020, 12:26 am
Aug 20th, 2020, 5:42 pm
I’m a big fan of Kevin Barry having previously read a collection of shorts (Dark Lies) before picking up this one of his novels. Looking forward to reading City of Bohane next. Another fine glittering writer to come out of the Emerald Isle.
Aug 20th, 2020, 5:42 pm
Aug 25th, 2020, 9:45 pm
awesomemrk1 wrote:Looking forward to reading City of Bohane next. Another fine glittering writer to come out of the Emerald Isle.

I have City of Bohane on my list to read too. I haven't really read any Irish writers before now, and Barry was a delight to find. Are there any other writers of the Isle you would recommend?
Aug 25th, 2020, 9:45 pm

My Favourite/Recommended Book series:
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks, The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe