The New, the Old and the Obscure

The New

“Night Boat to Tangier” (2020, paperback edition) by Kevin Barry

Recently released in paperback, Irish writer Kevin Barry’s latest novel is about two aging criminals, Charlie and Moss, waiting at a ferry terminal in Spain for a young girl named, Dilly. The narrative shifts from past to present, where we learn the relationship each one has to the other through various enterprises, including drug running and shady real estate developments, and Dilly’s mother, Cynthia, whom Charlie and Moss both loved.

The power of this novel comes from Barry’s tone, a balance between playfulness and dramatic phrasing. Moss, reeling from a painful memory, thinks: “There comes a time when you just have to live among your ghosts.” Charlie, in talking about the restful peace of death, bemoans the noise we live with in life: “We come in the world on the tip of a scream and the wave of our poor mothers’ roaring … and the first thing we do? We start roaring and bawling our own selves.”

As the two characters wait for Dilly, confronting transients in the terminal, as well as each other, Barry’s prose rocks us along through a history of storms, angst and beauty, as the two men grapple with what’s led them to their final destination.

The Old

“Year of Wonders: a Novel of the Plague” (2001) by Geraldine Brooks

One of the masters of historical fiction, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2005 novel, “March,” which retells “Little Women” from the point of view of the protagonists’ father and focuses on the Civil War. Her first novel, “Year of Wonders,” is set in 17th century England in an isolated village where a piece of cloth from London has brought the plague. Helpless and uncertain, the townspeople turn on each other after the pastor persuades them to cut themselves off from the surrounding villages.

Based on true events in the town of Eyam in Derbyshire during 1665 and 1666, Brooks realizes the period for the reader through detailed research and an engaging protagonist, the housemaid of the pastor, Anna Frith.

As Anna, who has suffered the terrible loss of a child, attempts to keep to her duties amid the chaos, she begins to question her own morals and choices, as well as the power she has to help her neighbors heal. The novel is often harsh, yet hopeful, and offers a portrait of people not so different than us during the current pandemic. Even if better equipped with medicine and knowledge, Brooks reminds us that “despair is a cavern beneath our feet and we teeter on its very brink,” and often our emotions and beliefs are much more powerful than the truth.

The Obscure

“That Smell” (1966) by Sonallah Ibrahim

Confiscated upon its first printing, censored and drastically edited, Ibrahim’s first novel, “That Smell,” wasn’t published in full until 1986, when it became an international success and a notable landmark in Arabic literature. In 2013, New Directions published the novel along with Ibrahim’s “Notes from Prison,” which was primarily written on cigarette papers during the author’s incarceration.

The novel follows a recently released political prisoner as he meanders through Cairo, running into old friends, lovers and relatives whose lives have moved on in his absence. The novel is short and powerful, offering a glimpse of what it’s like living as an artist under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had come to power in a military coup and began to round up and imprison communists, especially those who criticized his regime.

In the case of the narrator, and many around him, these artists suffer from general apathy towards their work, matched with the lingering trauma from their captivity. The narrator’s time revolves around when he must be home for the police come to check on him. This, it seems, is all that motivates him, as he struggles to find a way to be free, even outside the confines of a prison cell.

Ultimately, our narrator is unable to associate with the life he once had. At one point, he crosses paths with an old man, still clinging to the promise of change through activism. The narrator sympathizes with the man’s suffering, his hopeless belief in a collective uprising.

Ibrahim writes, “He took pleasure in standing firm. But no one cares about that anymore. … He gave all he had – but he lost. It was a game without mercy and in fact without rules, where you couldn’t distinguish right from wrong, where the winner wasn’t always the one in the right, but the cleverest, the trickiest, the luckiest.”


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