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Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

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Article by Swirl and Thread ©.
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‘Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond sit on a bench just a few yards west of the hatch. They are in their low fifties. The years are rolling out like the tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain – just about – a rakish air.’ 

Night Boat to Tangier is described as ‘a tragicomic masterwork from the award-winning Kevin Barry…a work of melancholy beauty, wit and lyrical brilliance.’

Just published with Canongate books, I was thrilled to attend an event with the author in Waterstone’s, Cork a few weeks back. Kevin Barry was on hand to sign copies of Night Boat to Tangier but it was his reading from the book that won the night. He poured his heart and soul into that reading bringing the audience with him to the port of Algeciras in October 2018. We met Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond and we experienced every single word, every witticism and every action of these two faded Cork gangsters.

My OH came with me to this very unique event, as I knew he would thoroughly enjoy the humour and the pathos of this fine writer. We were entertained from start to finish with vivid portrayals of such wondrous characters narrated with a passion that is distinctly that of Kevin Barry. You could hear a pin drop as the atmosphere in the room was electrified with the resonance of this most amazing reading.

When we discovered that Maurice Hearne was one of the main characters, we immediately knew that this was a book we would both get serious mileage out of….and we did! Into our suitcase it went and off to Spain we traveled. My OH read it immediately, laughing to himself, quoting sections to me without giving too much away and then it was my turn. On completion, we had so much enjoyment discussing the novel and recalling sections of the book that appealed to one or the other of us. There is pure poetry in the prose, a descriptive narrative that just pulls the reader right into the story. Now obviously being from Cork, I got it…I got every single bit of it. I loved reading about the streets and pubs of Cork, it’s places, it’s people but also it’s pure blackness of humour. Cork, like any city, has a dark side and Kevin Barry brings it to life with these two hardened Cork gangsters who have lived and seen and have just about survived.

Now, in Algeciras port, in the South of Spain, the two are awaiting the arrival of the night boat from Tangier, as Maurice has information that his beloved daughter Dilly may be on it. Dilly suddenly left Cork, left Ireland a few years previously following the very tragic death of her mother, Cynthia. The relationship between father and daughter is fragile and Maurice hopes to get Dilly back in his life. As they sit the night out in the port of Algeciras, we journey with them back over the years as they recount their lives.

‘You were gorgeous in your day, Charles

I was a stunner! And sharp as a blade.

Maurice turns left, turns right, to loosen out the kinks in his neck. Images slice through him. The wood at Ummera in north Cork, where he spent his first years. And Dilly as a kid when he walked her through London’s grey-white winter, Stroud Green Road. And Cynthia, in the place outside Berehaven, on the morning sheets as the sun streamed through.
I suppose I was an unlikely sex symbol, he says. I mean you put this old mug together, on paper, and it don’t make any sense. But somehow?

There’s a magic. Or was Moss. There was.’ 

Night Boat to Tangier jumps between the present day, as the boys sit in the port keeping an eye out for Dilly, and back to the days of their youth. Back to the early days, when they launched themselves into the underbelly of the Cork drug scene, importing quantities for sale and mixing with some very dangerous folk across the borders into Europe and beyond. Living with one eye open at all times, took its tole on their lives and their personal relationships, but they always held onto their humour, their dry Cork wit, a characteristic of many a Corkonion today.

Night Boat to Tangier is a very unique and a very special book. It inspires thoughts, it invokes conversations, it leaves you craving more. Kevin Barry writes with a fervour, an intensity that brings the pages alive. There is a palpable sense of longing, of fear, of an urgency, a tangible pathos throughout yet also the novel is filled with quips and jibes, that of two old buddies having the craic recalling the years gone by and the paths they have tread.

‘They watched Rumble Fish again. They had watched it when they were sixteen or seventeen, until the tape had worn thin on the VHS and the footage went snowy, a monochrome dream of violence, death and helpless brotherhood, the Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James. and the lights of Tulsa were coldly burning, and their own world could be redrawn to its dimensions.’

I could quote from every single page, from every single paragraph. The atmosphere, the attention to detail, the memories of these two friends as they reminisce over their lives, is something to be savoured. I will most definitely be reading Night Boat to Tangier again, making new discoveries along the way.

Night Boat to Tangier is a truly memorable and intoxicating read, a black comedy, one that I hope to see on stage some day in the not too distant future. Kevin Barry is a writer that is surely not afraid to express himself in his own inimitable fashion. He is an exceptional artist, a writer, a poet, an author, a charismatic person and pure entertainer.

Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond will live on in my mind. I hope they do in yours too…

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.