April 2024

Wild Houses

By Colin Barrett
Review by
Come to Wild Houses for the nail-biting plot; stay for Colin Barrett’s gorgeous language: Here, tennis court nets are “as frayed as used dental floss” and a man has “a face on him like a vandalised church.”
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In this reviewer’s (possibly prejudiced) view, there are few things as satisfying as a good work of Irish literature. The form doesn’t matter too much; a poem, a short story, a play, even a novel that makes no sense—looking at you, Finnegan’s Wake. A genius Irish writer can, in the words of the Irish playwright J.M. Synge, make the English language “as fully flavoured as a nut or apple.” Such is the case with Colin Barrett’s first novel, Wild Houses.

The setup is straightforward: Dev Hendrick lives alone in County Mayo with his late mother’s yappy little dog, Georgie. One rainy Friday night, Dev’s cousins, Gabe and Sketch Ferdia, drag a teenager to Dev’s home and expect Dev to hide him. The teenager, Donal “Doll” English, is the brother of Cillian, a petty drug dealer who owes the Ferdias—or their drug lord boss—money. Cillian will get Doll back if he coughs up the cash by Monday.

Certainly, the situation ratchets up the reader’s anxiety, to say nothing of that of Doll’s mother, Sheila, and his sensible girlfriend, Nicky. These are the folks who take it upon themselves to find a lot of money in not a lot of time. Ironically, Cillian did once have what he owes, but it was washed away by a turlough, a temporary lake that, according to him, only happens in West Ireland.

But if you come for the nail-biting plot, you’ll stay for Barrett’s gorgeous language. Consider such phrases as this description of a TV: “its screen patinaed in a fuzz of glinting dust.” The sagging nets of a derelict tennis court are “as frayed as used dental floss.” Gabe Ferdia has “a face on him like a vandalised church.” And so on. Barrett, author of the short story collections Young Skins and Homesickness, treats the sketchiest of his characters with tenderness and compassion. Wild Houses is a stunning work.

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Wild Houses

Wild Houses

By Colin Barrett
ISBN 9780802160942

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