Empathy against all odds in ‘Night Boat to Tangier’
Kevin Barry develops every word of his novel “Night Boat to Tangier” with contrasting magnetic forces. The reader is wholeheartedly repelled by the despicable tendencies of supposed protagonists Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond. Yet somehow, Barry’s captivating style re-attracts the reader, familiarizing him with the most unfamiliar of lifestyles and impulses in a manner akin to that of a compelling nature documentary.
Barry’s coverage of these longtime partners in crime begins well past their prime. They sit in the decrepit port of Algeciras and wait for the title boat to Tangier in hopes that Maurice’s long estranged daughter, Dilly, will arrive or depart onboard. Dilly is the primary source of empathy throughout the novel and a beacon of purity in each flashback Maurice and Charlie recall. She represents the innocence that Maurice and Charlie have long surrendered — the two hope to save her from a problematic lifestyle like those they had led their entire lives.
Despite his paternal concern for Dilly, Maurice is expertly depicted as a contemptible human being in just about every flashback that Barry provides. Maurice possesses few memories not involving mistresses, drug smuggling or assault. Despite his constant reflection, his most damning personality trait is his inability to take responsibility for his actions, even in hindsight. He had no choice but to perpetually cheat on his former partner, Cynthia, since he had a suspicion that she herself could have been cheating. His prior heroin use was inevitable since it was so placating for his anxiety, and the Irish are an inherently anxious group of people. By all accounts, Maurice is incorrigible. This makes Barry’s ability to garner any empathy at all for Maurice nothing short of a magic trick. He is only able to work his miracle through the juxtaposition of the regret he feels for his invisibility in Dilly’s life and the lack of regret he feels in every other facet of his life.
This tense question of regret is exemplified through the generally brief back-and-forth dialogue that Maurice and Charlie share as they kill time in the port of Algeciras. In the very first pages of the novel, Barry cements their thuggish personas through their concise, unemotional responses to one another. These segments are so well executed that the reader may find themselves questioning Barry’s own past — his ability to take on a criminal voice comes about a little too naturally. The only time his voice partially breaks is when Maurice considers his shortcomings as a father or whether he will find Dilly. In spite of the initial disgust he feels toward Maurice’s lifestyle, the reader cannot help but hope that Maurice gets his second chance.
Unfortunately, Barry’s creation of empathy for a wholly detestable character does not make for a perfect novel. At times, the dialogue and reflection at the port feel as though they are done too well. The format of these scenes is so unique and rich in voice that the flashbacks consequently fell short. While Maurice’s backstory is crucial to the payoff of the more reflective scenes, the more traditional presentation of his past tended to create a noticeable disconnect throughout the novel. Transitioning from a chapter of rapid-fire, authentic dialogue to one of more drawn out, albeit effective, description tends to disrupt the exciting tempo of much of the novel and leave the reader waiting for the chapter to end. Perhaps Barry did this somewhat deliberately, since the effect of the imbalance is the reader yearning to leave the excerpts of the life of crime characterizing Maurice’s younger years in exchange for a time period in which there is an actual chance for redemption. However, this is a very generous stance to take, and it's more likely that these sections were not as effectively executed as Barry may have hoped. While not as terrible as the character they portray, Barry’s scenes set in the past simply cannot uphold the precedent of captivation achieved in present scenes.
Kevin Barry’s novel is one that thoroughly impresses in its ability to both capture a voice so unknown to most readers and evoke empathy for characters with so few redeeming qualities. While the pacing of flashbacks is mismanaged at times, patient readers may not mind this shortcoming at all, and restless readers will still have their hunger for fast-paced writing satiated by the scenes in the port of Algeciras. Whether looking for a way to fill an evening or needing something to do until your own boat arrives, “Night Boat to Tangier” is a worthy use of your time.