Colin Barrett’s Homesickness — Small Town Shadows
The first collection of short stories by Colin Barrett, Young Skins, was an exciting arrival in 2013, introducing readers to a funny and compassionate columnist from small town Ireland with a serious prose style. Barrett won awards (Guardian First Book, Frank O’Connor, Rooney Prize) and acclaim, and was soon a regular at The New Yorker, where half of the stories in this new collection were first published.
Like before, Homesickness takes place primarily in County Mayo in the rural west of Ireland. Here are the stories of the village community, where people know their neighbors and their affairs. We recognize the remarkable Irish short story tradition, which imbues regional contexts with rich meaning with a regularity that draws attention to a difference between Irish and British literary fiction.
In the opening story, “A shooting in Rathreedane“, a policeman responds to the call of a man who shot an intruder on his land. After following careful directions “to a farm with a yellow bungalow and a Fiat 92-reg motorhome on bricks out front”, she discovers she knows the injured man, who “had real criminal instincts but no real criminal talent”.
Barrett has used the apparatus of detective fiction before, notably in the short story “Calm with Horses”, the centerpiece of Young Skins, which was told from the perspective of a reluctant gangland tough guy. In this collection, Barrett relies less on sensational material to drive his narratives: the dangerous situation is quickly defused and after that the focus shifts to the sadness of saving the life of someone who will likely die. The story ends with the officer carefully putting his papers in order.
From then on, the stories are distinguished by their renunciation of pyrotechnics, to end on notes of mystery and ambiguity. Some works are more comic than tragic: each is haunted by death in one way or another. Barrett moves us by showing us moments of great loss as they are being dealt with, deflected, as they hit the character and the reader with renewed strength out of stoic attempts to reclaim life.
“The Ways” takes us through the perspective of three orphans, living in their family home with the screaming emptiness of their parents’ absence, made all the more poignant by how they try not to think about it. “Whoever’s there, come through” is perhaps the strongest and saddest story in the book, and begins with Eileen picking up her friend Murt after he’s been released from his final hospital stay. , now he “had managed to step back once more from the edge of himself”.
Eileen keeps herself busy trying to improve Murt’s life, while facing an antagonist in Murt’s lawless and fatalistic older brother, Jamie. He said, “You care about him. . . but you have no pity for him. When the suicide attempt that has hovered over the story from the start occurs, it’s on the unexpected – and shocking – side.
Other stories have a more comedic tone and show a lineage with Kevin Barry, another famous writer from the west of Ireland. “Bobby Tallis possessed the gutter physique, knee-deep mackintosh and eerily frail demeanor of a poet, or so he believed” are the opening words of “Anhedonia, Here I Come” and could have been written by one or another writer.
The two stories that leave small town Ireland both feature writers in towns. One is set in Toronto, where Barrett now lives, and the title, Homesickness, can be explained this way, although most of its characters are missing something that represents an idea they once had of home: parents, a football career, a partner. The view of the Atlantic is never nostalgic.
Small town life is claustrophobic, but can be redeemed by the community. And it’s in the stories of the characters who haven’t gone that Barrett’s accomplishments are most extraordinary. In these, he introduces characters in a web of family and community relationships that most novelists would struggle to inflict on less than 80,000 words. They live and breathe, just like County Mayo. This is a beautiful and moving collection, from one of the finest writers of English-language stories today.
Homesickness by Colin Barrett, Cape Jonathan £14.99, 224 pages
This review has been edited to correct a plot detail in the opening story description.
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