Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
People who read my blog know that Kevin Barry might just be my favourite writer ever. But, that doesn’t mean I let him away with everything and any sort of writing behaviour. Along with some other people. I have been waiting on his new novel, Beatlebone for a while now so when I heard him read the first few pages back at the Festival of Writing and Ideas, I felt a bit nervous.
It didn’t seem to grab me. It sounded odd to hear Kevin read about this Liverpudlian icon of John Lennon in the West of Ireland. But, I kept my faith. I knew Kevin would write something brilliant. He had too. We haven’t been seeing much from him for a year or two. After the City of Bohane and his two short story collections, he had gone away to his Garda Station or as Beatlebone reveals, Achill Island.
Keeping in mind that it is not every day we get something from Kevin to read. I also only primarily read short fiction. These facts must be kept in mind as I read the book and now give you my thoughts on it.
I received a copy of the book a month before it was officially published. I showed it off and I read it as quickly as a busy person can over a couple of weeks at bedtime. I have a young baby so my reading time is short and in bursts and the novel form is not suited to my life at all! I wanted to savour the novel, I didn’t know when I would be getting writing from Kevin so I enjoyed every word, piece of dialogue and quirks along the way.
I mostly loved the book. The bits I didn’t still work. sometimes the narrative and dialogue went on when I had got the point but again, because he is one of my favourite authors, I allowed myself the pleasure of the overkill!
Beatlebone is a novel about the imagined return of John Lennon to an island he owned off the West Coast of Ireland. He strikes up a brilliantly hilarious friendship with his chauffeur, Cornelius and we get some spot-on dialogue. Dialogue is and will always be Kevin’s strong point. I never tire of it, it can on for pages and I immerse myself in the way Kevin gets Ireland and the way we speak. Cornelius’s job is to keep John Lennon from the clutches of the press until he reaches the island. He brings him to an awfully, depressing and sad hotel in Mulranny. I hated the characters in this section. Yuck. I also hated the constant drug references and the scary “Primal Scream” therapy they undertake.
I have read a couple of reviews since and they all have varying opinions. Some are “shocked” by the turn in the novel. The turn I am speaking about is when after all the above drug taking and scream therapy, Kevin takes over the novel for one chapter. He tells us how he wrote the book, why and all about his research and how he even stays on the island. I don’t believe a word of it though I believed it all at the same time!
Kevin shows his ability to change tone and voice so easily it makes me feel sick and jealous. But, this probably was my favourite quirk of the novel. Other readers have not quite “got it” and claim it just doesn’t fit and that a novel can’t do this. Well, guess what? It does work and you can do anything you feel like and it is good to see a push in the writing, not only in this section but throughout. Kevin switches and plays with form and language throughout. Each section taking on a different atmosphere and style. Choose from a selection-a semi-Joycean monologue with no punctuation, a screenplay of the screen therapy session or an auto-biographical section in the feel of “On Writing” by Stephen King.
I felt that this book despite its moves and sways is more accessible than City of Bohane but accessible does not mean bad. A good book or story needs to be accessible, entertaining, witty and quirky. And Beatlebone hits all the notes perfectly for me. the only question I have left for Kevin is what happened on the island? Did he stay there, did he go at all? I’m from the West of Ireland certainly all that could have happened to him was a bit of cold, rain and wind. But that is the beauty of this novel. It may or may not have happened. Respect.
Beatlebone is published by Canongate and is really worth a go.