Kevin Barry hails from the West coast of Ireland, Jan Carson from Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Barry won the European Literature Award for Ireland in 2012 with his novel, City of Bohane, Carson won it this year for her book, The Fire Starters, also for Ireland. The work of both, shares the lyricism and irrepressible humour that is so often associated with Irish literature but their perspectives are very different. Growing up in a conservative Presbyterian home in Northern Ireland, Carson admits that she didn’t see her culture represented in Irish literature. Set 16 years after the Troubles in a loyalist community, her most recent novel has special significance in a post-Brexit world where the threat of another hard border has yet to be ruled out. Kevin Barry’s work on the other hand is deeply rooted in the Irish landscape, specifically the Atlantic coast, ‘where time as a chronological concept simply does not apply’.
Kevin Barry is a bit scruffy in appearance and tells us that he initially had dreams of ‘being the next great American Jewish writer’ in the tradition of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, ‘but it didn’t work out.’ He is also unwavering in his refusal to infuse being a writer with glamour of any kind. Admitting that he feels he wasted time in his twenties, he now ‘goes at it seven days a week and maybe one day a week it goes really well. There are no short cuts.’ In his most recent novel set in both Ireland and Southern Spain, he presents a similarly unglamorous portrait of the lives of two ‘big, belligerent’ gangsters, Charlie and Morris. The novel is worth reading for the dialogue alone, he captures of the vernacular speech of these two ageing Irishmen in a way that is comically sinister. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been comparisons with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Barry admits that, ‘It’s the easiest thing in the world to get yourself compared to Beckett if you include two Irishmen waiting for something!’
Jan Carson, by contrast, is a quietly reserved woman in her thirties. She has ash blonde hair and wears bright red lipstick and matching shoes that contrast with her serious demeanour. The magic realism of her latest novel, achieves something similar as she explores the legacy of violence and guilt that reflects the troubled history of the post-ceasefire loyalist community. Carson admits that it took her 15 years to write unapologetically about the community in which she grew up. She recalls visiting London as a young woman and immediately opening her handbag for inspection upon entering a supermarket, because this was simply part of life where she grew up. The Fire Starters follows two fathers, Sammy Agnew and Dr. Jonathan Murry. Both middle-aged men from East Belfast struggling, in different ways, with fatherhood. The book has also been read as a criticism of the ‘mindless masculine righteousness’ that was so much a part of the Troubles. Jan Carson agrees that a question that still interests her is why people are so attracted to violence. She includes herself in this and admits being surprised by how much she enjoyed writing the violent scenes in her novel. Be it Northern Ireland or the Republic, it is clear that the Emerald Isles are not short of literary talent. As Kevin Barry quipped last night, ‘It’s the only thing we world class at, there’s nothing else that we’re any good at.’ Souwie Buis 3rd November 2019
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