City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry’s novel imagines a future Irish city where the gangs of Logan Hartnett and the Gant Broderick battle for dominance like the Jets and the Sharks. Barry creates his own dialect that mixes Irish brogue and Creole patois that pervades the dialogue and is reminiscent of the language in A Clockwork Orange. I’ll leave it to Barry himself to describe the world he has created:
Bohane is an imagined Irish city of the 2050s. Well, I say imagined … It is a small, demented, murderous, vicious, beautiful, malevolent, wind-raked and very sexy place. Our future here is a retrograde one, with no technology to speak of. Homicidal gangs of rampant teenage skanks and sluts battle for control of the city’s vice and narco trades, and they practice knife tricks, and they trade fashion tips. It is all as restrained, quiet, and thoughtful as it sounds. The people of Bohane speak a hipster creole, or patois, the sources of which can readily be found in the actual talk of small, demented Irish cities. And they dance a lot, and sexily, at times of festivity, or of mourning, which, in Bohane, are extremely frequent.
Kevin Barry, Largehearted Boy interview
If that description doesn’t sell it to you, then nothing will. I loved Barry’s invented language, but occasionally the narrator would shift and the dialect would fade into the background. I preferred the dialogue filled chapters. One other thing that bothered me was the insistence on describing the fashions worn by the characters. Each time the narrator interrupted the dark flow of the novel and said “This is what she wore”, I got frustrated. I preferred the darkly violent descriptions of street life and the different boroughs of Bohane.
City of Bohane’s impressive combination of cultural traditions and genres should be counted among the best of contemporary dystopian science fictions.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Building on a story that everyone already knows and many love can be a risky move. But Madeline Miller does exactly that in her debut novel The Song of Achilles, writing a story that surrounds the epic of Greek mythology, The Iliad. Miller does not hesitate as she crafts the beautiful and tragic love story of Patroclus and Achilles as they grow up and are torn apart by the war.
Achilles, famous for his heroic warrior feats during the Trojan War, was a familiar character to me, but I remember Patroclus only as Achilles’ friend. Miller builds the backstory for these two companions leading into to the war. Patroclus narrates, and the story begins as the beautiful Helen is given away. Although Helen chooses another for her suitor, Patroclus still joins the group of suitors in vowing to protect this union if ever something should happen to the beautiful queen. Back at home, the young Patroclus mistakenly kills the son of an important court dignitary and finds himself exiled from his home.
Now living in King Peleus’ court, Patroclus finds himself drawn to Prince Achilles. Their magnetic connection strikes Peleus as unusual; Achilles many successes are matched by Patroclus’ ineptitudes. The young men become inseparable - taking lessons together, singing and playing the lyre together, training together - and their friendship slowly morphs into a romantic relationship.
There are two types of novels that draw me in. A novel with great literary depth in which each sentence is a marvel (think Woolf, Banville) always catches my attention. Also hard to ignore is a novel with a page-turning plot, and this novel falls into this second category. I was tempted to give this a five star review, but I can’t exactly give Miller full credit for the plot. The Iliad has lasted as one of Western civilization’s greatest tomes exactly because of its incredible storyline.
As I have noted here before, I am making an effort to read female authors, and I picked up Miller’s novel because she won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. The Orange Prize “…celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.” I am working on reading the novels by the other finalists, but I would say that The Song of Achilles is absolutely worthy of this prize.