REVIEW: Homesickness, Colin Barrett

Homesickness is the latest collection of short stories by Colin Barrett, winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize and the Guardian First Book Award for his highly acclaimed debut collection Young Skins. Nine years later, the eight stories in Homesickness mainly draw us back to rural and small-town Mayo, with another transporting us across the water to Toronto, where Barrett currently lives. With dark humour and compassion, Barrett casts a bold and unwavering, yet empathetic, eye on the lives of the people struggling or stagnating within these communities. 

The stories are populated by a colourful and varied cast of characters, imagined yet relatable in their flaws and anxieties. Barrett has a wonderful way of vividly conjuring images of these people; in ‘Anhedonia, Here I Come’ Bobby is described as ‘cheeks flocked with old acne scars, the sebum gleam of his forehead, his significant but gracefully tapering nose (his favourite feature), inexpiably seedy smile, and untameable squall of dark curls… resembled a not unhandsome but grotesquely ancient teenager; a physical template he considered not unsuitable for a poet.’

Through the trials and existential mishaps of his characters, Barrett explores themes ranging from lust, loss and grief, to mental health, alcoholism, attempted suicide, and occasional absurdity of existence; delving into how these play out within community and family context. Sibling dynamics seem to be of particular interest to Barrett, whether it’s the tough kids in ‘The Ways’ who are each dealing with their own grief or sacrifices following the loss of their parents; the hulking brothers in ‘The Alps’, with their ‘massive arses and brutally capable forearms’, who go everywhere together doing whatever odd jobs need doing but ‘excelled…in the displacement of earth: digging holes, filling holes back in’; or the brothers in ‘The 10’, whose boisterous banter thinly veils a relationship of genuine affection. Barrett seamlessly shifts voice in each story, showing an ability to capture and portray different types in the community, and a capability for exploring the complexities of human emotion and communication.

With dry humour, Barrett explores the often stifling dynamics of small communities, where everyone knows each other and each other’s business. There are recurring references to the idleness and inertia that thrives in claustrophobic environments, and the cyclical nature of this mindset. Many of the characters are weighed down by a sense of stunted potential. There is the football prodigy in ‘The 10’ whose trajectory doesn’t plan out as expected, and he finds himself back in his hometown; the poet of ‘Anhedonia, Here I come’ wallowing in his own mediocrity, who creates pornographic cartoon art to pay the bills; or the practical and capable policewoman in ‘A Shooting in Rathreedane’ whose time is mainly taken up with mundane, almost comical investigative scenarios. When a dramatic shooting narrowly avoids real tragedy, the policewoman finds herself back at her desk, faced with a return to the tedium of everyday routine.

Yet in these stories, filled with characters who often feel somehow lost or stuck, inhabiting spaces that often feel run-down or removed from time, there are moments of great introspection; of tenderness and vulnerability glimmering beneath the surface. We are privy to moments of sentimentality from brothers Nick and Gerry in ‘The Ways’, which they feel but are unable to express. When a quiet night in the rural pub takes a surreal turn, community spirit rallies as The Alps brothers emerge heroic in defence of a strange, sword-wielding ‘young fella.’ ‘Whoever is There, Come on Through’ is one of the most sombre of the stories; Murt has returned home following another stint in hospital, and the story explores both his own candidness and resignation in dealing with his mental health struggles, as well as the different ways his friends and family try to cope and support him.

Barrett’s writing style is at once dynamic, playful and lyrical, with bursts of coarse language and colloquial tongue sitting easily beside more profound, introspective passages, and stunning, sensory descriptions of place. Homesickness is a vibrant and compelling collection of short stories, both darkly humorous and deeply human, which picks up beautifully where the captivating, character-driven storytelling of Young Skins left off. 

Reviewer: Róisín Russell
Pages: 213
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781787333819
Price: €17.99
Publication date: 10 March 2022
Category: Fiction