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There are Little Kingdoms

Kevin Barry

" An indisputable fact: our towns are sexed. Look around you. It’s easy enough tell one from the other. Foley’s town, for example, is most certainly a woman – just take in the salt of her estuarine air – but she’s not a notably well-mannered or delicate woman. She is in fact a belligerent old bitch."

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew

Reading Kevin Barry’s collection is like finding a shiny two-pound coin in a pile of muck. It brings unexpected pleasure. Not just because he gives you priceless glimpses into the lives of individuals in a small Irish setting, but also because it’s one of these collections you literally cannot finish in one sitting. It sent me into spirals of associations, memories, and universal contemplations. Double-takes of pure aesthetic admiration of prose. And bleats of laughter at the scrapes his characters get into (here, I’m specifically referring to Animal Needs, where one lust-soaked farmer winds himself deeper and deeper into a fandango -- an erotic dance – with wife-swapping neighbors).

The characters in Barry’s collection comprise, inter alia, a young buckaroo at the top of his billiard game, two fast girls looking for trouble, a lonesome hillwalker, an amnesiac, a genie with wry humor, a gigantic taxi-driver, an antique collector, a contemptuous air steward.

Rendered in lilting Irish brogue, what struck me is how often these characters are on aimless journeys, destinations unclear. The amnesiac who finds ownership documents in his duffel bag for a chip shop, surprises himself with his own porn collection (See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown). The incessantly talkative old biddy (The Wintersongs) riding a bus gives us a glimpse of her young fellow passenger at the crossroads of abandoning an old life and seeking a new one. Even the four corners of a felt-lined billiard table become a metaphor for trippyness, a purposeless ride of sorts, until the bright young star himself is vanquished in death.

One more thing. Barry’s power of description is awe-inspiring. Nothing soporific about it. It’s not sentimental, but it contains lushness. It makes you believe there are little kingdoms invisible to the eye. “And Broad Street was on fire. The last of the evening gave out in a show of dying golds and reds. The street lamps came on. The blue flicker of television screens could be seen behind terraced windows. The summer night announced itself, with its own starlit energies. It brought temptation, yearning and ache, because these are the summer things.” (Atlantic City)

If there’s anything to fault, it’s the light plotting hand Barry wields – often, these stories feel like character sketches; it leaves one craving – I would have liked to stay longer with any of them. Party at Helen’s actually reads like a series of shifting character point-of-views and tantalizing profiling. The last couple of stories in the collection are also weaker by comparison – the title story itself, There Are Little Kingdoms, is a dip into an unstable wino’s mind. But that’s all there is and I can’t help wishing for more.

Even so, this will be a rewarding read for the prose aesthete, for those who admire robust narrative voices, and for the enthusiast of the common and the strange.

Elaine Chiew lives in London, England with her husband and two children. She was a securities lawyer before becoming a mother and writer. Her work has appeared in Verbsap, Juked, The Summerset Review, In Posse Review, Edifice Wrecked, among others. Her story in In Posse Review was a Top Ten Notable Story in Storysouth’s Million Writer’s Award, 2006 and one of her flash in Juked has been selected for Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2007.








Publisher: Stinging Fly Press

Publication Date:March 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback and casebound

First collection?Yes

Awards: 2007 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature

Author bio: Kevin Barry was born in Limerick in 1969 and now lives in Dublin. He writes sketches and columns for the Sunday Herald in Glasgow and the Irish Examiner in Cork. He has written about travel and literature for The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and many other publications. He was awarded the 2007 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for this collection.

Read an interview  with Kevin Barry

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