Homesickness by Colin Barrett’s critic – great stories about Ireland’s evolution | Short stories

Jshort story is seen either as a natural form, close to conversation, or as an art like poetry, requiring a lot of skill and restraint. But some poems are huge and some short stories are restless, just about contained. Some stories push to their own limits, trying to escape.

In the paths, the second story in Colin Barrett’s superb second collection, each sentence is as full and lively as a sentence can be, while still managing to remain ordinary. A landline phone ‘meows’, waking a girl from the ‘cozy rut’ of her bed. Going down, “she hit every switch as she passed, to feel less alone”. Each chosen word catches and expands the character of Pell, one of three siblings who try to feed themselves after the death of their parents. Pell is similar to characters from Barrett’s first collection, Young Skins, which looked at the excluded, the peripheral, the damaged and the lost, and won the Guardian’s First Book Award in 2014.

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This collection extends Barrett’s range, but it still has its share of damage. Two men are in wheelchairs; a character’s hands are stuck in a grin that forces him to drink from a straw. A stranger is “touched,” as people are said to be touched by fairies; another man is, in a more modern way, in and out of a mental hospital. In some stories, the folkloric gives way to the contemporary on the page: an old-fashioned bachelor is called an “incel”, a herd of somewhat mythical cows is watched over by the owner’s bumblebee.

One of the stories takes place in Toronto, where Barrett has been based for a few years, but as the title Homesickness might suggest, most take place in some version of where he grew up, County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. (Maybe there’s more snow.) The characters live in small towns, they sometimes meet and fight in pubs, they drive bad cars: a Vectra, a Mondeo, a Hitachi Hiace “with pie panels”. These can be drivers of death and injury – one is the site of suicide – but they also provide temporary freedom and are marketed and prized.

In its highest style, the work follows a tradition that stretches back from Kevin Barry and Marina Carr to the epic tales of Old Ireland, a mode that shifted from heroic to faux-heroic in the work of Joyce and Flann O’Brien. . Three brothers called the Alps, in the story by that name, are “short men with massive asses and brutally capable forearms”. A little grandiose, a little disgusting, their dialogues are rich, comical and full of appoggiaturas. “How is the form? asks one. “The shape remains legendary,” says the bartender, and he could be referring to the history at hand.

In The Ways, however, this richness of texture makes for a full and compressed style, the way anger feels compressed. Pell’s younger brother had a fight at school, and his older brother Nick remembers the feeling after a fight: “muscles flushed, the hot quivering of shattered nerves”. Solving the problem calls Nick away from his job in a hotel kitchen. After: “There was a minute left on his cigarette break and, with the sensation of tears boiling behind his eyes, he smoked that minute.” Nothing great happens, except impossibility and decline. Suspended from school, Gerry plays a Nintendo game and misses the need to keep filming “to advance the plot”. What he enjoys is roaming the game’s beautiful map. “You can, of course, shoot every living thing in the game, although Gerry has refrained as much as possible.”

I don’t think it’s too strong to say that Barrett’s work has reached an inflection point in Irish culture. Her first collection was published just two years before Ireland’s Waking the Feminists movement exposed a seemingly enduring bias against women’s voices in the creative arts. It was a remarkable four years before the Eighth Repeal campaign, which saw men of Barrett’s generation doing feminist work to secure abortion services for women in Ireland. To be a male writer at that time must have required a kind of double vision, a reckoning of what could be lost and what could be gained. It’s more problematic in a tradition that is so concerned with loss, and how men in particular deal with the pain of dispossession.

A real writer (no small compliment, here) answers all of that. It lets the changing moment sink in and settle, and inform what comes next. Pell isn’t the only Homesickness woman to be properly and deeply observed. Three other stories deal with the limits, the sweetness and the difficulty of female compassion. Eileen, watching over her friend Murt, picking him up after a hospital stay, walking with him and trying to stabilize his day, is told to back off by her brother. “You have to get your boot out of her throat,” he says, and many female readers will recognize the baffling injustice, how Eileen’s body felt “like a heavy coat she had neglected to take off.” It’s also typical of Barrett, that the brother could be right.

A few stories are about writers, and all of them are, in some way, about writing, about the necessity and craziness of one style or another as we circle around what can’t be said . In each of Barrett’s styles, however, there is a total attention to his attention, a devotion to the lives of his characters, which moves the work into a more enduring place. Barrett is already one of the leading writers of Irish short stories, that is to say, boastfully, one of the leading writers of short stories anywhere. He means every word and regrets every word. He just kills him.

The Silver Coast, which is the most overt, dazzling and understated piece in the collection, depicts about four women talking after a funeral. “The world is full of inexplicable things, if you keep track,” said one. “And who keeps track?” replies her daughter.

Who indeed.

Homesickness by Colin Barrett is published by Vintage (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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