author Kevin Barry

Booker 2019: Night Boat to Tangier

4th September 2019

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Canongate Books

It is night in the Spanish port of Algeciras in October 2018, and Irishmen Maurice and Charlie are staked out in the ferry terminal, waiting for the boat to Tangier, on which Maurice’s missing daughter, Dilly, 23, is expected to arrive or leave.

The terminal is a grim, unforgiving sort of place – a fitting setting for these brutal chaps. Barry’s publishers describe them as ‘two fading Irish gangsters’ – a soft focus phrase that implies a mild degree of misdemeanour and invites affection. But their past has encompassed serious drug-running (and equally serious drug-taking) and all the violence and negligence that go along with that. Charlie has a dodgy knee; Maurice has only one eye. Neither of these injuries has come about by accident. Even their present behaviour, as they terrorise anyone who might be able to tell them something of Dilly’s whereabouts, is underpinned by ruthlessness.

Life has taken its toll on Maurice and Charlie. ‘The years are rolling out like tide now. There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain – just about – a rakish air.’ They go back a long way; they finish each other’s sentences, talk inconsequentially, revisit their shared history, drift through the interminable wait in an intimacy that feels like exile. Barry also works as a playwright and screenwriter, and these scenes in the ferry terminal have something of a screenplay about them – dialogue, stage directions, little else to cloud the view. The writing is vigorous, full of banter, but nostalgia is never far away. There’s a wonderful stillness at the core.

Chapters alternate between the present and the past, with the latter, more conventionally told, filling in the gaps that Charlie and Maurice aren't acknowledging – as well as the drugs there’s the money-laundering, the infidelity, the madness, the real estate speculation – and the relationships they can’t properly unpick: the lost wife, the disappeared daughter, the left-behind-lovers.

In the end, of course, it is impossible to withhold our affection from Maurice and Charlie, who bear the scars of love they didn't – and don’t – know how to manage. They are broken men. You have to take them to your heart.

Night Boat to Tangier is a stunning achievement, both melancholic and menacing, suffused with tenderness. Barry’s writing is spare, in mostly short sentences and paragraphs, with barely a word out of place. Once in a while, he’ll extend a metaphor too far, or give in to overblown imagery, but you have to forgive him that, for the perfection of the other 99%.

There’s a brilliant sense of place, for example: Spain and Ireland spring off the page. ‘Tiny opaque scales and twisted fish bones were everywhere on the streets and in the gutters,’ Barry says of Cadiz; and ‘On the ribs of the sea the last of the evening sun made bone-white marks,’ he writes about the coast of the Beara Peninsula.

It’s beautifully atmospheric, and captivatingly character-driven, but there’s more than enough plot, reeled out in careful measures, to ensure it engages and beguiles on every level. I wanted to inhale this book, to rush to the end without delay… and simultaneously I wanted it never to finish.

Find Your Local