Until now, Colin Barrett has made his name as an artist of the short story. Both his debut collection, Young Skins (2014) and Homesickness (2022) won him acclaim for their depiction of rural Ireland. But his tales stretch beyond the constraints of their size, and his dispossessed drinkers, small-time crooks and depressed teenagers seem too large and real to have their stories end in a matter of pages.
Barrett’s first novel, Wild Houses, is, then, a delight, with a wider space for his talent to spread and for his acutely observed characters to linger. In the first few pages he gives us a man whose tattoos appear like ‘the pages of a medieval manuscript’ and another whose face is ‘blue-tinged as raw milk in a bucket’.
Even here, there’s a sense that Barrett is pushing at the limits of his chosen form. The novel is in part a detective story. Doll English, the younger brother of Cillian, a small-time drug dealer, has gone missing in the west of Ireland, and over the course of one weekend his girlfriend Nicky and his family struggle to find him. Dropping clues (a missing trainer, a bomber jacket with the words ‘Tequila Patrol’ in gold lettering on the back), Barrett sets up Wild Houses as something of a ‘whydunnit’. It’s clear who has kidnapped Doll, but not why they want him.
Yet the storytelling could not be further from a humdrum crime mystery. This is less a plot-driven novel than a study of an intricate web of characters. Whether it’s the reclusive Dev Hendrick (who, despite being 7ft, ‘leaves an awful dainty mark on the world’) or an old taxi driver who muses on the difficulty of prayer (‘the trouble begins when God starts talking back’) or a former drug dealer who relies on a miniature zen rock garden to stop him contemplating suicide, each are richly drawn and, it becomes clear, connected.