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Beatlebone—a review

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, Canongate, 2015, ISBN 9 781782 116165, 263pp

There are odd books and there are odd books and this is an odd book. The odd thing is that I cannot quite say what I mean by that except that I surprised myself by enjoying it, and by laughing out loud at some of the passages. I found it not in Janice’s bookshop nor yet in any other bookshop.

In December last year my son took unto himself an Irish wife. She hails from County Limerick and has one of those Irish accents that you can listen to all day without tiring of it. Perhaps this is why my son has married her. Beatlebone was lying on their coffee table and I picked it up. My daughter-in-law asked me if I had heard of Kevin Barry and had I listened to his podcasts and was I aware of how funny he is? I had to answer in the negative to all these. But on flicking through the book it fell open at a page that mentioned Achill Island.

We had visited Achill Island, which is in Country Mayo, during the several days we spent in Ireland in December when we were there for my son’s wedding. They say there is magic in Ireland and there may well have been magic around us as we stood on Keem Beach and looked out over the sea. Now, December is not the obvious choice for a European holiday and perhaps a less obvious choice for a visit to Ireland. But we had unseasonably good weather and the day on which we visited Achill Island was one of the most glorious days you can imagine. Clear blue skies, no wind but with enough of a chill in the air to remind you that it was winter.

It is Achill Island that is at the centre of the geography of Beatlebone, together with the islands of Clew Bay and in particular the island of Dorinish. Like you I was unaware that John Lennon bought Dorinish in 1967 for the princely sum of £1,700. By now you are still wondering what this all has to do with the book. The truth is that it is hard to say. The often rambling prose canters along in one direction after another and for some reason you follow it, expecting that it will make sense. And in a way it does, and it is often very funny.

The principal characters are John and his driver, or minder, Cornelius. The dialogue between these two is beautifully written and could only ever be spoken by two Irishmen. John is looking for a particular island in Clew Bay. All he wants to do is to spend three days alone on this ... his ... island. We do not find out until someway through the book that the island is Dorinish. And it is only when Kevin Barry tells us of the John Lennon connection with Dorinish that you realise that possibly, just possibly, John is John Lennon. Or perhaps he isn’t. Hence the title: Beatlebone. But for me it is the language of this book that carries it through. It will not be to everyone’s taste; it can be jittery and disjointed and it’s full of words that your mother would not have liked. But all that made it an unusual read, not always an easy read but a rewarding read nonetheless.

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