City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

City of BohaneFile this one under: Books I would never have gotten past page five of except that they were being read for book club.

Also file under: Books I don’t really understand why anyone would bother to read past page five of.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. It’s just that on the Style-Plot-Character triangle, I tend to be swayed toward plot and character, and this book is like 99 percent style. Check this opening paragraph:

“Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.”

That’s not just some fancy opening. That’s the style of every paragraph of this book. Usually I’m reading on my lunch break and trying to figure out how to squeeze in two extra minutes to get to the end of a chapter when I’m reading, but with this one I found myself stopping early and giving my brain a rest with games on my phone. The book is flowery and dense and all about that dark, gritty atmosphere, and it just wasn’t for me.

Usually I try to lead with what the book is about, but I really just don’t know in this case. There’s this dude, like, and he’s the head of the mob equivalent (the Fancy) in Bohane, and he’s got this wife, and there’s this other dude who used to date said wife and also I guess run the town and now he’s back in town after 25 years and everyone’s freaking out? But as I said, there’s not much plot to the book and what it’s really about is getting into various characters’ heads and getting a sense of this city of Bohane and, I don’t know, stuff.

And that’s fine, as it goes. I’ve certainly read and at least appreciated books that are mostly style (see: Flavia and also Jasper Fforde’s entire oeuvre). But what was really weird about this book was that when I got to book club, there were discussion questions that put a heck of a lot more thought into the book than I did. Questions looking at motivations and reasons for settings and actions that I probably couldn’t answer even if I read the book again looking for those answers. So I don’t know what is going on here.

Barry mentions in his afterword (see that link above) that one of his influences for this novel is Cormac McCarthy, which makes a lot of sense as I literally did not get past page five of The Road even though that one was a book club book as well. But I know a lot of people who loved that book, so obviously I am the problem here and you should not discount this book just because I didn’t like it. Unless you dislike similar things. Then you should probably listen to me.

Recommendation: For people who LOVE style and grit. (Not me.)

Rating: 5/10

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