This is my final contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. It’s always a fantastic event and I’m so pleased to have taken part despite my reading and blogging capacity being very poor these days.
I’ve chosen two short novels that feature pretty unsympathetic protagonists. In both instances the writing was so good it kept me right alongside them, and maybe it’s the after-effects of covid (it probably is) but they both made me cry.
Night Boat to Tangier (2019) is only 214 pages in my edition, with lots of dialogue and spaces on the page, yet it still manages to be a fully realised portrait of two men in middle age, coming to terms with regret.
Charlie and Maurice sit in the port of Algeciras looking for a young woman they expect to turn up there at some point:
“Two Irishmen sombre in the dark light of the terminal make gestures of long sufferance and woe – they are born to such gestures, and offer them easily.”
Quite quickly we realise that Charlie and Maurice are not to be messed with. They accost a young man named Benny and the threat they pose is both insidious and comic:
“The stories we could tell, Benny. Did you ever try and buy 350 goats off a fella in Marrakesh, did you?
In a Cork accent.”
The narrative moves back and forth in time, and we learn how it is that these two men have ended up bound together, why one has a limp and the other a damaged eye, who the girl is they are looking for and how they made their money.
What I enjoyed was the affection the two men had for each other, as easily expressed as their violence.
“Is it me or was I something like a Matt Dillon-type in my younger days?
You were the bulb off him, Charlie. But come here. Have you seen Mickey Rourke lately?
Think I saw him on the number eight going up MacCurtain Street. Top-right-hand seat, overhead the driver.
He’s after leaving himself go something shockin’.
He is, yeah. They nearly had to turf him off the number eight.”
That interaction reminded me of the easy, bordering surreal, dialogue in Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints novellas, but overall it was of Samuel Beckett that Night Boat put me in mind. The two males waiting for someone without knowing when they will arrive, the nihilism and humour, a sense of despair and endurance of hope…
But Night Boat is absolutely its own story. Barry brilliantly evokes the two men as they are in 2018 and as they were in the late 90s/early 00s, showing how their life choices caused such pressure that it took all their strength not to fracture irrevocably. Charlie and Maurice are not very commendable but neither are they one-dimensional baddies. They are deeply flawed and also deeply vulnerable.
Barry writes simply but also has some startling turns of phrase:
“Charlie’s smile is, of its own right, an enlivened thing. It travels the terminal as though disembodied from him. It leaves a woven lace of hysterical menace in its wake.”
To me Night Boat is ripe for adaptation, so I googled and apparently Michael Fassbender has acquired the rights. Intriguing…
“A troubled silence descends – the old times are shifting again; they are rearranging like faultlines.”
Secondly, All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan (2016). I only started reading Ryan a few years ago but he’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. He writes beautifully, but with a pared-back style, and he always demonstrates such compassionate understanding. I thought his quote about this quality was a suitable title for this post about questionable characters.
Melody Shee narrates the story, and she is not a sympathetic character, as she tells us from the off:
‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”
The novel follows Melody from twelve weeks of pregnancy through to giving birth, as she reflects on her adolescence and early marriage, her relationship with her parents and her history of appalling decision-making.
Her mother was probably depressed, although this is never said, and had a difficult relationship with Melody’s father, which Melody emulated to try and please her mother. She feels guilty about this now, as her father is possibly the nicest man ever:
“There’s no kindness in me. I can feel it, and think about it, but I can never act it, or be it, the way my father is, the way he’s selfless without effort, a man who has kindness in the marrow of his bones, a soul with barely a blemish.”
She married Pat, her childhood sweetheart, and they seem to have spent most of their time verbally destroying one another:
“The boy who’d grown to adulthood beside me, curled around me, stunting himself, stunting me, a twisted tangle of boughs, hunched and bowed and facing inwards.”
“We merged over time into one person, I think, and it’s easy to be cruel to oneself.”
The pregnancy due to another man is the final straw, and they break up, leaving Melody alone in the house, in a town where everyone knows each other’s business. She finds herself strongly drawn to Mary Crothery, a Traveller woman who, although she lives with her family, is somewhat ostracised from her community. As Melody teaches Mary to read, the two form a close bond, and it’s this that pushes the narrative forward as they both anticipate and cope with life-changing events.
Alongside the current day pregnancy and this relationship with Mary, Melody recalls the heart-breaking story of her childhood best friend, Breedie Flynn. While as a reader it is possible to see the cruelty of young adults who don’t comprehend the damage they are doing as unthinking, it is still an all too believable tragedy, and Melody’s intense guilt and grief don’t seem at all misplaced.
Ryan has made a brave choice in centring a woman who has wreaked so much damage on other people’s lives. But Melody isn’t remotely self-pitying or self-justifying, and in a wholly misguided way, she tries to do better. What I haven’t captured here is that she and Mary are both very funny. Melody literally screaming her frustrations at small town judgement and gossip, and Mary’s snarky asides lift the story and stop it being bleak. It’s not depressing, it’s human and messy and there’s sadness and cruelty and love.
I adore Donal Ryan’s writing and even if this story doesn’t appeal, I’d urge you to seek out his work. His writing is so sensitive and precise, and so readable.
“I’m frightened about what will reach my father’s ears, and how his heart will speed and slow in worry and fear, and how he’ll want to help but won’t know how, so will stand at the window, and watch the weather, and wait.”
To end, Cathy’s post about her favourite Irish films reminded me how much I love The Commitments and hadn’t watched it in years – something being stuck on the sofa with covid gave me a chance to remedy. Robert Arkins, who played Jimmy Rabbitte, sang a few songs on the soundtrack, but wasn’t shown singing in the film. I thought he did a great version of Slip Away, but I couldn’t find decent footage of that, so here he is singing Treat Her Right: