I’m back to the Booker Prize longlist with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. The synopsis of this one sounded excellent to me, but my expectations may have been a bit too high- the book didn’t quite live up.
In the novel, two Irish gangsters- Maurice “Moss” and Charlie- wait at a ferry terminal for a boat carrying the estranged daughter of one of the men. Whether she is coming or going from Tangier is unclear to them, but they are confident about recognizing her or encountering (and successfully intimidating) someone who knows her. While they wait, they recount lives of violence, loss and betrayal- events that have both pushed them apart and bound them together.
“They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling. They pick up the flyers and rise again. They offer them to passersby- few are accepted. Sympathy is offered in the soft downturn of glances. The missing here make a silent army.”
I must say that Barry’s prose in this novel is exquisite. It’s lyrical, peppered with Spanish and Irish lingo, and brimming with metaphors that almost always hit the mark. The narration is a third person omniscient, which allows the reader to see into both men’s lives (though the focus is clearly on Moss) but also gauge others’ perceptions of them. The timeline bounces between the wait at the port and some of the earlier events that have led our characters to this day.
The story itself is where things started to go a bit downhill for me. Quality writing is a huge determining factor in whether I’ll appreciate a book, but it’s not the only factor. And sadly, neither plot nor characters quite matched the perfection of the prose for me.
To begin with, almost all of the action occurs in the past timeline- the present is reserved for reflection and… waiting. Though Charlie and Moss do have a few encounters at the port station, the fact that they are waiting for someone specific makes those early conversations with other characters feel superfluous. I might still not have minded that Night Boat to Tangier is slow on action if the action hadn’t been so very expected. I think Barry does a great job of circling around the drug trafficking aspect that lies at the heart of this story and instead focusing on its myriad affects in the lives of those involved- the relationships that are formed, the lifestyles required, the attitudes adopted. But I expected a pair of aging Irish gangsters to make for a grittier read, and instead found the usual drug use, infidelity, bad parenting, etc. presented with such a lack of nuance and originality.
“It was a fucking joke life. It was fucking beautiful. They never caught us- that was the important thing.”
In the end, I think my biggest impediment came in the form of the characters; though Moss and Charlie are criminals who’ve made plenty of bad choices, they are clearly supposed to draw on the reader’s heart. They’ve had a rough time of it, and perhaps had less choice about the careers they began than they can admit, and in any case are now trying to do The Right Thing. The book’s focus on love and attempts to mend important relationships seems an encouragement for the reader to overlook Moss and Charlie’s criminality and see only their emotions. In almost every review I’ve seen for this book, readers have been prepared to forgive just about anything that didn’t quite work for them because they became so attached to Charlie and Moss. I’m clearly in the minority- but I thought these two men seemed like such cardboard cutouts of gangsters that I really could never bring myself to care about them at all. Though their fascinating friendship should be the highlight of the novel, my lack of belief and interest in them as people barred me from making as much of their dynamic as other readers seem to do. Dilly was the only character I found very convincing, and Barry doesn’t give us much of her.
“She can see her mother, in the hotel bed […] turning again and again in a hot, awful soak, and she can feel the heat off her, it radiates, she’s like a brick oven, and Maurice sits by the window, it’s very late, it’s summer and such a humid night, and he’s looking out to the car park, smoking a number, and very lowly, under his breath, he’s going / fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck / and she knew then that they were definitely not like other families.”
None of this is to say that I was bored while reading. The chapters are short, and the scenes switch often enough that even where it is predictable the story is never a slog. I’ve already mentioned that I adored the writing style- I marked so many stunning passages that I could have filled this review just with quotes and not lost any length. There’s one superb scene that will surely stick with me, in which Charlie and Moss are having a public confrontation narrated entirely through the eyes of other patrons in the bar who become aware of the tension in the room and wait expectantly for something to happen. Something does, of course. The dynamic between Charlie and Moss is certainly fascinating; though they’ve been in competition with each other for so long and have so many reasons to see each other as enemies, still they have maintained a friendship stronger than anything else that has come and gone for them in the intervening years. I would’ve loved to see this story explored further in every direction.
“He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Is haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”
Though this was a fun read, I didn’t feel that it left me with any new perspective of the world or food for further thought. If I had picked the book up on my own for a quick escapist read, it might have fared better, but as part of the Booker Prize longlist I had hoped for more thematic depth than “smuggling illegal goods can ruin your family.” But Night Boat to Tangier is a good time at the very least, and many readers seem to be finding more to praise it for than I have, so if the synopsis interests you don’t let my mediocre review steer you away from giving it a chance.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m really disappointed I didn’t like this one more. Maybe I’m missing something, as it seems to be receiving a lot of love from other reviewers. In any case, a reread (even just for that wonderful writing) isn’t out of the question, and I am curious to check out more of Barry’s work based on the strength of his prose alone. I don’t really see this one making the shortlist despite its crowd popularity, but I’ve been wrong before. In any case, flaws and all, I had a better time with Night Boat to Tangier from start to finish than I’m having with my current Booker Prize read, Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.
How is the Booker Prize longlist going for you so far?
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