City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

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City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Hugely cinematic in style, this gangland take set 50 years in the future in a parallel Ireland is breathtakingly original and distinctive. Told in a vernacular style it is a lust and drug fuelled romp of a story that you won't easily forget.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224090575

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Bohane is a thoroughly lawless town, set in what would appear to be some kind of parallel universe. We are told it is set in 2053, but it's a town without any technology or modern luxuries. It's a violent place fuelled by alcohol, drugs and lust with a patois style language that takes a little work to get into. Novels with this kind of premise have to be beyond good if they are to interest the annual literary prize judges; this is one such book and City of Bohane is nominated for this year's Costa First Novel prize. It is stunningly good.

The book's brilliance lies not so much in the plot though. It's a relatively straightforward gangland power struggle. Neither does it solely lie with the great range of characters, although they are amusingly well drawn. From the gangland leader and part time mummy's boy Logan Hartnett, his domineering mother, Girly, to the young pretenders Jenni Ching, Wolfie Stanners and a certain Mr Burke, whose nickname rhymes with 'mucker', through to the arch manipulator Ol' Boy Mannion.

Great though these characters are, and Kevin Barry frequently goes to great lengths to describe their bizarre fashion tastes, it is the way that Barry uses language to describe the scenes that is so brilliant. Hardly a page went by without it invoking a smile at the sheer brilliance of the descriptions. It's difficult to give examples, because of the unique style of the language which taken out of context is merely confusing, but in a bar 'ceiling fans whirred, noirishly against the night, and were stoical, somehow, like the old uncles of the place, all raspy and emphysemic'. He does this again and again.

The book's cultural influences are worn on its sleeve and are wide ranging. Most obviously in literary terms, there are elements of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess but in terms of the imagery, it's very cimematic, and in fact the film right have already been sold. Gangs of New York in particular springs to mind in style terms. There are also hints of deeper mythologies throughout and indeed, the relationship between Logan and his mother is all very Grendal.

Violent and scary though Bohane is, you get a strong sense that Barry very much likes his creation. It's usually a fair bet that when a male author clothes his young female characters in catsuits that this is very much a place he'd like to hang out! It's probably fair to say that it's a book that has more male reader appeal to it just because of the subject matter. It's probably not the best Christmas present for your Granny, unless she has a penchant for swearing and 'hoors, herbs, fetish parlours, grog pits and needle alleys'.

Brilliant too is the vernacular of Bohane. Although at first this can be difficult to penetrate, it makes great sense ('peepers' are eyes for example) and the use of repeated phrases like 'y'check' and 'ye sketchin' invoke gang culture and language. Barry is also very good at the physical and environmental influences on the people and the city. The cold dark heart of the book is the Bohane river that gives this city its name.

Also interesting is the relationship between this future-set world and nostalgia. The older characters, including the banished former gang leader, are all prone to nostalgia and while the book is set in the future, the world is very much one of the past in terms of the lack of technology.

The subject matter and style won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a book that I could enthuse about for hours. It's hugely original, completely stylish and quite possibly brilliant. Real life is quite dull after you've visited Bohane - I want to go back, y'check me?.

Huge thanks to the kind folk at Jonathan Cape for introducing us to the rather wonderful mind of Kevin Barry.

So original is the style of Kevin Barry that it's hard to recommend similar titles, but fans would undoubtedly enjoy A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. You might also enjoy another of my guilty pleasures Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto in 41 Tales by Marilyn Chin which I have a feeling Jenni Ching would enjoy.

Booklists.jpg City of Bohane by Kevin Barry is in the Costa Prize 2011.

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Buy City of Bohane by Kevin Barry at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy City of Bohane by Kevin Barry at


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