Review of “Wild Houses” by Colin Barrett: A Thrilling Adventure in County Mayo
Colin Barrett, author of the short-story collections Young Skins and Homesickness, was praised by the Oprah Daily website as a “master of the sentence”. While this compliment is both embarrassing and accurate, it accurately reflects Barrett’s talent. When reading his work, one immediately feels a sense of relief and trust in the skillful hands of the writer. In his debut novel, Wild Houses, Barrett’s evident abilities are showcased on a larger scale.
Familiar readers of Barrett’s writing will quickly identify the setting of Wild Houses. Two small-time criminals from County Mayo, Gabe and Sketch, kidnap Doll English, the younger brother of a local boy who owes them money for drugs. They hole up for the weekend at Dev’s isolated farmhouse, using it as a hideout for their hostage. Meanwhile, Doll’s girlfriend Nicky tries to uncover his whereabouts and bring him back safely. Essentially, the book is a heist story, but with a comedic twist due to the ineptitude of the criminals. While the plot may seem simple, what sets Wild Houses apart is the skillful storytelling of Barrett. Through flashbacks and foreshadowing, the reader is taken on a journey to discover how the characters reached their current predicament. This technique, commonly used in thrillers, is executed with finesse by Barrett.
Wild Houses is a novel that delves into the concept of being rooted, in all aspects. The characters are stuck and unable to move, bound to their surroundings and overly familiar with their surroundings. They are also interconnected and tangled together, but ultimately, they are uprooted and exposed. Barrett masterfully captures the feeling of being trapped and repetitiveness that comes with growing up in a community where everyone knows your name and has an opinion on your life. This creates an accumulative effect, with the same people and conversations repeating and a constant need to break free. Barrett avoids sentimentality, instead showcasing the physical toll of living a difficult life on those who are forced to endure it. One character’s face is prematurely aged, resembling a vandalized church, with eyes that glint like smashed windows. The novel is filled with vivid descriptions such as these. While most writers try to find new ways to describe the blinding effects of light, Barrett simply states that it was “blindingly dark,” a phrase that is both ordinary and striking at the same time.
The book Wild Houses has received praise from both critics and readers for its exceptional use of sentences. Author Barrett is often recognized for his skill in crafting sentences, which is worth noting. Typically, when someone commends a writer in this way, it means they have recognized a specific sensibility in their writing. For example, James Baldwin aimed to write sentences that were as clean as bones, while George Orwell had a preference for unadorned and invisible prose. There is a tendency to commend prose for being taut, lean, muscular, or spare. However, it is important to consider how this critical vocabulary may be influenced by our biases towards certain body types. One thing is clear: modern literary praise often centers around control and restraint.
While it may seem reasonable, its overwhelming presence can sometimes make one crave for a balance; sentences that daringly miss the mark, a touch of grandiosity, a lack of trust in polite simplicity. And if there’s a flaw in Wild Houses, it can be found here. Barrett’s writing is all about accuracy with very little room for spontaneity. His brilliance can occasionally stray into the realm of being showy, unrelenting, and overly precise. While this is a valuable asset in short stories, it can start to feel suffocating when stretched out over the course of a whole novel.
Barrett’s skillful use of dialogue is what ultimately saves the novel from being weighed down. Their witty and imaginative dialogue is unmatched by recent novels. For example, when Doll’s mother complains about a potential migraine, Doll responds with a clever remark about her mother’s suffering. These types of exchanges, clever and emotionally charged, are a perfect representation of Wild Houses. This novel proves that, in capable hands, subtle dialogue can be just as powerful as bold strokes on a canvas.