City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (2011) 277 p.

I wanted to pick up an Irish novel for my recent roadtrip around said republic, and was aiming for At Swim Two Birds, but my local library didn’t have it, so instead I opted for Kevin Barry’s widely acclaimed City of Bohane. It’s set in the fictional titular city on the west coast of Ireland in the year 2053, but it’s not science fiction – there are no advanced gadgets to be seen, or even any mobile phones or computers. The characters dress in outlandish styles and speak a made-up Irish cant. It feels not so much like a novel set in a future 2053, but more like an alternative present: a wild and lawless city with tastes of Quentin Tarantino, Frank Miller and Luc Besson.

I make those references because City of Bohane constantly struck me as a work of style over substance: a story which would have worked far better in a visual medium, as a film or a graphic novel. Barry is a talented writer who certainly expends an enormous amount of effort in making the tone of his novel pitch perfect, from the pikey slang down to the omniscient narrator, himself a citizen with a love-hate relationship with Bohane. The story, such as it is, involves a feud between two gang factions in the city, and the return of an old rival known as the Gant, who has been abroad for many years. I feel no shame in admitting that the details of the plot and characters washed over me like a tide of Irish whiskey, leaving only vague memories in its wake, when most of the dialogue ran like this:

“Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer askin’ me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.”

I can very much understand and respect the cascade of accolades this book has across its initial pages: from Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh, the Sunday Times, the Irish Times, etc. City of Bohane is one of those books which people will either love or hate. It’s one of those books which I greatly disliked reading but nonetheless admired for what it was trying to accomplish – for what it successfully accomplished, in fact. (It’s not Barry’s fault I didn’t like the road he was going down.) I can appreciate his imagination, his talent, his clear skill with words.

City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. I’ll keep an eye out for his second, and hope that he proves to be a versatile writer who pens an entirely different sort of book next time around.