There’s a new doctor in the house. No, I’m perfectly fine. It’s a Sci-Fi reference and if you’re still lost I’m talking about the recent appointment of Peter Capaldi as the new doctor in the long running BBC drama Doctor Who. If the 12th Doc’ was to open the door of the TARDIS in the next series and find himself in the setting for this month’s book, then it would be a very interesting episode indeed. The book is City of Bohane by Kevin Barry.
The story is set in the fictional city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland (pronounced Bo-Haan, I’m reliably informed by other members of the book group). It’s a seedy, malevolent place where life is cheap and sex and drugs are what fuels its economy. Control of the different parts of the city and the profits from its illicit trade are run by various gangs, the largest being the Hartnett fancy gang and their leader Logan Hartnett. A number of rival gangs from the other side of the city are itching to get their hands on his business so it looks like the tenuous peace of the city is about to be shattered, as well as that Hartnett’s old nemesis Gant Broderick has returned to the city after a twenty five year absence. He has unfinished business with Hartnett’s wife Macu but is that all? What of the younger members of the gang? Is Logan facing trouble from within his own ranks? Will life and the balance of power ever be the same in the once great metropolis of Bohane?
This is Limerick born writer Kevin Barry’s first novel, he’s previously written two collections of short stories ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ in 2007 and ‘Dark Lies the Island’ in 2012. The book won the 2013 Dublin IMPAC literary award and it is the first time I have had cause to actually agree with the judges on their choice. Usually it’s the shortlisted runners up that I’ve thought were more deserving of the top spot. IMPAC is far from the world’s best known literary prize, but it is growing in recognition and stature behind its all conquering neighbour in the UK, the Man Booker. Thanks in part to it having the largest prize in the world of €100,000.
This maybe very different from any Irish book I’ve read before but its now one of the best. Firstly, Bohane itself is a mishmash of various other cities both fictional and real. It’s like Barry took Gotham, New York, Dublin and Paris then stitched them all together. This is not surprising as he lived in seventeen different places before he was thirty six years old, including Cork, Santa Barbara and Barcelona. Bohane does seem to be set in an alternate universe, where there are no cars and very few pieces of technology like phones or TV’s but they have trucks and an ‘EL’ train. No guns either, all the fighting is done by hand or with knives.
One of the nicest things about the book is the language, its fruity to say the least and quite knackery. At first it’s hard to imagine where in Ireland you are, sometimes inner-city Dublin other times the west of Ireland. Phrases like “Sweet Baba Jay” when taking the lords name in vain reminded me of Hill Street Blues Lt. Hunter, who often exclaimed “Judas Priest!!!” or “Judas H, Christmas!!!” The down side to the rich flowery dialect is that it often slows the reader down as you try to translate what the characters are saying but don’t let that take anything from a warming and descriptive element of the book. It’s not surprising that this book wasn’t nominated by libraries from outside of Ireland for IMPAC, as with the release of the film The Commitments in the US, readers not acquainted or related with the Emerald Isle might require a small list of translations to help them on their journey through Bohane.
The book shows the influence of films such as Blade Runner and Sin City, owing to the very sepia styled imagery and gothic themes running through it. Also the Mad Max movie Beyond the Thunderdome came across to me as inspiration for one tribe called the “Sand Pikey’s” who live in the dunes outside the city. Meanwhile the whole gang rivalry storyline is rather weak and seems like a bad episode of the internationally acclaimed RTE hit ‘Love Hate’. However, it is emboldened by the vivid descriptions of the settings and the myriad of weird and wonderful characters, like the local paper Editor Dom Gleeson, his hunched back photographer, Mary Grimes and Logan’s two henchmen, Wolfie Stanners and Fucker Burke, while Hartnett comes across as a rather dandy character who dresses like Willy Wonka.
If this book was ever to be developed into a visual format, I could see it as a graphic novel initially. But you only have to see that graphic novels and darkly drawn comic heroes have an excellent track record in crossing over to the big screen. In an interview in 2012 Barry confirmed the book had been optioned and that he’s written a first draft of a script.
So take my advice, forget about packing your copy of lonely planet. put on your best Pikey or Oirish accent, along with a decent pair of knuckle dusters and prepare for a very enjoyable trip into the shadowy environs of Bohane.