“Night Boat to Tangier”, by Irish novelist Kevin Barry, is nothing short of magnificent.
Two Irish-born men, Maurice and Charlie, now middle-aged or slightly older, find themselves in a somewhat sleazy port city in Spain, where they’re waiting/hoping to see Maurice’s long-lost daughter Dilly, who’d run away years back after her mother, Maurice’s wife, died in a small town in Ireland. All of the novel is more or less in the form of a conversation between these two men, who’ve been involved in smuggling drugs, mainly heroin, around the continent and in and out of Ireland, and in other reasonably low-level schemes. They’ve been friends for decades, and the intimate friendship between these two men–and some underlying competition over Maurice’s wife, with whom Charlie had once also had an affair–is written with such poetic intensity and atmospheric density by Kevin Barry that the book reads nearly as a kind of noir poetry. Barry’s way with language is, perhaps, what the book’s really about, if you’re the kind of reader who appreciates and loves the ways in which writers use words/language, as I am.
The men are convinced that Dilly’s going to appear this particular night in this particular port city, either going to or coming from Tangier, about an hour away from Algeciras, Spain, where they are waiting in the dingy waiting room where ships/boats arrive and depart; the novel then consists of flashbacks to Dilly’s birth and Maurice’s life with her mother–who’s shrewd enough to invest the drug monies in real estate and tangible properties. Maurice’s affair with another woman, whom he meets during a drug deal, is also described in the same nearly surreal, lyrical style at which Barry so excels. The men will stop young people entering or departing the waiting lounge, all of whom walk with various dogs , looking for clues or hints regarding Dilly’s whereabouts. A certain caged violence is implied as they question these young people; how they guess that Dilly’s arriving or departing isn’t made clear, but they are correct that Dilly will be in this area, though when she spots them, she chooses to avoid them and escape. When the reader’s waiting with these men for Dilly, the tension is acute, the atmosphere thick with longing and sentiment and nostalgia (the men are aware that their drug smuggling days are nearly over, as people smuggling/trafficking has replaced drugs as the most lucrative form of smuggling, and the men feel out of date, passe). Barry’s descriptions of atmosphere, longing, love and friendship are astonishing, and in spite of these men’s shared underground history together, Barry makes us sympathetic to them both, no mean feat for such petty smugglers. And the reader’s on a tightrope of tension wondering, with them, whether Dilly will appear and whether they’ll recognize her. The almost ukiyo-e (“floating world”) lives of various young people from around the world, wandering to and from Europe and North Africa, living low and under the radar, is brilliantly rendered, too, by Kevin Barry.
“Night Boat to Tangier” is a quiet novel, perhaps a sleeper, but it’s powerful and its characters brilliantly depicted and the writing itself sublime. I recommend it wholeheartedly for readers also eager to read a novel that isn’t about the injustices of American power/social justice/women’s issues and the like, from which we occasionally may need a break, at least in our reading time. The novel’s by far one of the best of 2018, and I hope it receives a wide readership. It’s a knockout of a novel.