Book Review

The Irish writer Colin Barrett’s second story collection, Homesickness, contains memorable portraits of characters who are caught within the tight strictures of small-town life, uneasily moving ahead while bearing the burdens of their ever-present histories. The stories are mostly set in Mr. Barrett’s birthplace of County Mayo, on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, and while physical descriptions are sparsely distributed, the sense of place, the forced familiarities it entails, and the limited horizons of the fictional people we meet there are all artfully palpable. The book’s title, Homesickness, is separate from the names of any of the individual stories contained within it. One wonders if it reflects the traditional meaning of the word—a longing for home, no matter how imperfect—or if instead it refers to insidious tentacles sprouting from our places of origin that strangle the soul, yet keep us tied there. A sickness emanating from home. Perhaps it is both.

In the first fine story, “A Shooting in Rathreedane,” two rural police officers are at the scene where a petty criminal has been shot by a property owner. The senior officer looks at the distant mountains and says, “That’s the thing about Mayo. I find it’s very presentable from a distance. It’s only up close that it lets you down.” In another example of characters’ relationships with their hometowns, Barrett writes of two friends in “Whoever Is There, Come On Through,” who in secondary school on lunchtime walks invented classifications for people they came across. “The Heads was what they used to call a certain type of local, the ones to whom it would never occur to leave. Eileen, it seemed, had become one of them after all.” Both powerful stories are told through the vantage of strong women characters who are steady and reliable forces. Having gotten a handle on their own imperfect lives, they now hold together the flailing humans who surround them in settings of poverty and mental decay.

The push and pull of small-town County Mayo is perhaps most explicitly expressed in the story “The 10,” about a promising soccer (football) player whose skills earn him a place at an elite training school in England. When we meet Danny Faulkner, he is back in Ballina, bored stiff working at his father’s auto dealership (the economic class of the characters here is notably above that in most of the other stories) and stating that if he knows nothing else about his future, he does know he is done with the sport. He looks at it this way: “. . . because it was an awful thing, maybe the worst thing, to discover that in the end you were only good enough to get far enough to find out that you were not good enough.” That’s a lament universally recognizable to sports prodigies the world over. Danny’s return home with dashed dreams and a conviction to stay put comes just as his girlfriend is set to go off to college and expand her own life.

While the County Mayo backdrop (except for one story, set in Canada but seen through the eyes of an Irish émigré) is powerful and provides connective tissue for the stories—each is a complete and widely differentiated universe unto itself, created by an abundantly gifted writer and a keen observer of human behavior. The stories are secular, though at one point a woman whose husband has left her for a younger woman is described as “paying penance for other people’s sins.” None features church or clergy as a significant pillar. Fathers are often missing or worse. In “Whoever Is There, Come on Through,” a father is described as “generally a useless article who drank, and left the family to move to England . . . ostensibly for work. They’d stopped hearing from him years ago.” In the story “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” an absent father’s sporadic communications discombobulate an adult son. In the past, that father “returned one morning, stinking of whiskey, to set the house on fire, though he did, to be fair, make sure neither of us was in it before striking the match.”

Each story strikes broadly sympathetic portraits of people stuck or striving, often in settings where familiarity is overwhelming: everyone’s history and present circumstances are common knowledge. This comes across distinctly in the story “The Alps,” about a trio of single, middle-aged brothers who frequent a tavern where everyone in the small group knows each other and don’t all feel positively toward one another. There’s seemingly nowhere else to go for the bar’s inhabitants. The dull routine is interrupted on the night of the story by an odd intruder, spurring the brothers to an act of bravery that’s still not enough to win over at least one naysayer. In the story, “The Ways,” where an older brother named Nick is struggling to care for his sister and brother after the untimely death of their parents, an elderly neighbor asks a bunch of questions about the youngsters. Finally, he says to Nick, “You’re hardly about.” The young man’s retort is “You keeping tabs?” The old man, Swanlon, says, “Not in an especial way. But what else have I to be doing?”

Mr. Barrett brings his panoply of characters, rooted and yet still searching, to vivid, meaningful life.

About the Reviewer

Book reviews and short fiction by Neal Lipschutz have appeared in a number of digital and print publications.