Night Boat to Tangier

There are all manner of Best of 2019 and Best of the Decade lists to sift through to find out what has been missed, and that’s how I came to read Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. Getting to art through the medium of someone else telling you that is Very Good creates unfairly high expectations that might make you think that it is Actually Not That Good, but on this occasion I shared the sentiment of greatness.

The story takes up with two faded Irish gangsters in the ferry terminal at Algeciras, looking for a lost daughter, and lamenting in the murky waters of their lives which have been lived hard and fast. In this ferry terminal, which Kevin Barry manages to give a full sensual quality, these joint histories refuse to remain in the past. They bubble and breach, and we are taken through some of the lowest lows and highest highs of their lives as the portrait of these men is completed.

Barry writes with a lyrical prose, repeating phrases, and approaching sentences with a sense of poetic rhythm. It is an extremely effective way of communicating a story which is focused on the agony of regret, the conflicting ecstasy and suffering of drugs and money, and the similar push and pull of love. It is also makes for a simply pleasurable reading experience. Sentence by sentence, the technical sensation of reading Barry’s prose is a worthy experience.

At times it feels as if we, the reader, are placed into the story with Barry as we observe these two men. It supplants us into the sweatiness of the terminal, it gives us the salt rush of the Irish coast, it delivers the blood and stench of Spanish streets. It helps us to empathise with the gangsters, who on the surface are far too manic, far too gone, for us regular folk to comprehend.

And they are manic. Their actions ensure that this is a murky, bleak book. The lives lived by it’s sparse population are grim. Yet, there is a somewhat magical undertone. There is talk of mystery, of curses, and fairies. It’s characters strive towards something more, in themselves, in each other. Time seems fluid. It would seem that forces beyond anyone’s control reign over the world in these pages. And, at the heart of it all, love is the driving factor. So for all it’s troubling content, for its sweaty brutality, for all it’s addictions, it’s troubles, Night Boat to Tangier did not leave a foul taste in my mouth, for at it’s core is a softness, a sweetness, which is reflected in it’s melancholy.

Not every pick plucked for a Best of list is going to resonate as well for the reader of the list as it did the writer, but in this instance it allowed me access to one of my favourite reading experiences in recent memory.  

In a word, Night Boat to Tangier was Superb.

5-STARS on Goodreads.

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