A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry

December 18, 2020 | 7 books mentioned 3 min read

The world stalls, and then sweeps into chaos, and then it gathers again – we emerge from 2020 woozily, as though from a dark weird dream, grateful, I suppose, that we’re still going at all, grateful that we can turn our thoughts, just for a few moments here in the dank and drear mid-winter, to the books that have sustained us.

I was grateful to Hilary Mantel for many months of the year. Rattling around the house in the County Sligo hills, swinging from bouts of paranoia to moments of strange, demented hilarity, a 900-page doorstopper was just what I needed to stay grounded. Mantel must have sold her soul to Occult forces, I suspect, to have given her three-book portrait of Thomas Cromwell such hallucinogenic clarity, such haunting presence. In The Mirror & The Light, he is quite simply back with us, and while this book may be a little looser and messier than its two predecessors, it’s still more poignant and funnier and more beautifully written than almost anything else of the era.


Also plainly in touch with the Otherworld is David Keenan, a gifted Scottish writer of Irish heritage. His first novel, This Is Memorial Device, was a joyous celebration of the post-punk scene in 1980s Airdrie (now there’s an itch you didn’t know you needed to scratch); it was followed by For The Good Times, a vivid, Scorcesified take on the Northern Ireland Troubles; and now comes Xstabeth, a book about golf (oh yes) and music and sex and much (as they say) more. Keenan allows his stories to come from where they should come from – the dreamworld of the sub-conscious – and his fictional project is one of the most interesting on the go. He deserves a wide audience.


I’ve just finished an ARC of Danielle McLaughlin’s debut novel The Art of Falling, and she proves as elegant and as beguiling here as she did over the short form in her acclaimed collection Dinosaurs On Other Planets. An exploration of one woman’s attempt to step away from the shadows of the past, and from the long shadow thrown by the work of a dead sculptor, it’s full of sudden, unexpected perceptions, and the prose is beautiful.


How To Be Nowhere is the second novel from Tim MacGabhann, a madly talented Irishman currently exiled in Mexico City. It’s a pulsating, narco-Noirish crime novel, written with great verve in what we might call either the Elroyvian or the Bolanian tradition, but full of gloriously skewed Irish humour, too. The world sparkles when genres collide and they do so tremendously here.


Oldies but Goldies? I’d never read William Styron’s fiction until I picked up Sophie’s Choice – it devoured my October and haunts me yet. He has the kind of novelistic chops that I just don’t think exist any more. His sentences are extraordinary, and loopy, in both senses of the word. He is utterly unafraid to barge head-first into the most terrifyingly large subjects – The heart! The soul! The Holocaust! And he is utterly equal to the task.

I’ve been both writing about and reading Theodore Roethke. His poems, whenever chanced upon in an anthology, always cause my bottom lip to wobble, my eyes to fill up. As a personality, he was a car wreck and irresistible – I couldn’t resist putting him into a short story. His poetic line has such a melancholy mid-century glamour to it, and it refracts a special light, the hazed light of dusk, in 1957, as you speed in a taxi to an assignation uptown.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

’s third story collection, That Old Country Music, will be published by Doubleday on January 12.

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