Homesickness, by Colin Barrett. Penguin Random House UK, 2022, 215 pages.

Reviewed by Jane Christmas

The word homesickness automatically conjures the usual definition of longing for home, but pull apart the word and it can just as easily refer to a dislike of home or place, or a sense of displacement or unbelonging. All those permutations find expression in Colin Barrett’s mesmerising Homesickness, his most recent collection of short stories.

The issue of home is fraught with emotions—conflicted, melancholic, wishful, utopian. As someone cursed with the inability to settle in one place for long, I am familiar with the triggers for longed-for comfort—not the squishy-cushions comfort, but something cellular that thrashes around for resolution. I rather envied the folks in Barrett’s stories who not only accepted their place of settlement, their place of birth, but felt a constant yearning for it.

All but one of the eight stories are set in County Mayo, specifically in the town of Ballina, outside Dublin. They are stories of ordinary folk, the type you pass every day on the street, yet here we bump up against their quiet desire for something better, something changed; nothing grandiose, just a wish to tweak the annoying humans who populate their lives.

In “A Shooting in Rathreedane,” Sergeant Jackie Noonan is called out to one of those rural homesteads littered with the rusty flotsam of car parts and farm machinery, empty wine jugs, broken furniture. We’ve all seen places like this. The homeowner has caught a kid stealing oil from his tank, and has shot the thief as he tried to escape. When Noonan arrives on the scene, the kid is badly wounded, but she recognises him, a youth named Dylan, well familiar to police. She drops to the ground and gets to work with the trauma shears, doing all she can to staunch the blood and dress his grave wound, all the while talking to him to keep him alert. In the breaths between her sentences, she sizes up the property, and it rekindles memories of her own rural upbringing when a single tank of oil had to last the family the entire winter. By the time the paramedics arrive and Dylan is taken away, things don’t look good. Noonan drives to Dylan’s home to deliver the news to his girlfriend. The young, scrawny single mum receives the grim words without emotion, and Noonan cottons on to the flicker of opportunity the young woman is calculating. When Noonan returns to the police station to write up her report, her superior pops in to tell her that it looks as if Dylan will pull through.

He says:
‘I reckon you might just have saved the rotten little fucker’s life.’
‘Stop,’ Noonan groaned. ‘When we were over at the girlfriend’s house, giving her the low-down, the whole time in the back of my head I kept thinking how [Dylan] had just about done her the favour of her life, getting the guts shot out of himself.’
‘My condolences on his survival. … But as of right now, Dylan Judge remains in the land of the living, thanks to you.’
‘Thanks to me,” Noonan said with the shake of her head.’ (Homesickness, p. 26)

Such small, incisive moments, of which there are many in this collection, give Barrett’s work a soul-deep humanity, but the author’s prose doesn’t rely on emotion alone; it also employs the ballast of imagery.

“Images come to me,” Barrett has written about his process. “I don’t know anything about them. But I trust them and I follow them. … That’s all you need (or me, anyway) to anchor the story, to build out from. Events, logic, sequentiality, back story – all that will come, all that will, in a sense, take care of itself.”

This is drawn nicely in “The Alps.” No, it’s not about Switzerland; it refers to three brothers:

The Hiace belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps travelled everywhere together in it. The brothers stepped out and, with a decisive slam of the van’s side door, moved off across the moonscape of the car park in the order of their conception.

–Barrett, “The Alps,” Homesickness, (p. 47).

And later: “The Alps were shortish men with massive arses and brutally capable forearms.”
We most definitely get the picture.

Barrett continues: “And what I am trying to do with these images is build a story, yes, but also locate a space or spaces in the story where the reader can become active. … Increasingly, I am coming to think that a writer’s skill, or whatever it is, lies in evoking a pattern, but just enough of a pattern, that the reader can fill in the gaps, or extend their imagination beyond where the pattern ends, and so come to their own conclusion about things.” (The Irish Times, March 5, 2022.)

In “The 10,” 18-year-old Ballina native Danny Faulkner has recently returned to his hometown of Ballina after spending much of his adolescence pursuing a Premier League football career that did not, in the end, pan out. He’s now working at his father’s car dealership but people around town can’t help coming up to him to say what a shame it was the football didn’t work out. The steady drip of commiserations does not make Ballina feel quite like home, especially when they tell Danny not to give up, to go back to England and give it another go. Only Danny seems to know that that ship has sailed. You get the feeling he sometimes wishes he could be some place else, where people weren’t foisting their own hard-luck lives on him.

The one non-Irish centred story takes place in Ontario. During the pandemic, Fort-McMurray-born Barrett was in Toronto, unable to return to County Mayo due to travel restrictions. “The Low, Shimmering, Black Drone” takes places in Toronto during the pandemic in which Sean, a writer, takes up an offer to house-sit for Nicholas Caber, a famous writer, who has decamped to his cottage in Muskoka. Caber phones back regularly to “speak” to his dogs, whose care is entrusted to Sean. When Caber learns that one of the dogs has slipped under a wire fence at the back of the property and made a run for it (what human didn’t dream of doing that during the pandemic) rage, entitlement, and resentment simmer on the page:

‘That’s the thing about dogs, Sean,’ Caber said. ‘You can domesticate them all you like, you can turn them into the most loyal and obedient creatures on earth, but all it takes is you not paying attention for one second, just one second, and whssht—like that, they’re gone.’ (p. 168)

During long, successive lockdowns we all felt it—the waiting, the isolation, the suspension of life with its undercurrent of fear, instability, and lack of control. And yes, the longing for freedom, to get back to how it was before this devastating virus up-ended our lives, left us craving for the life we had, for our individual version of home.

Colin Barrett was born in Canada, grew up in County Mayo, and returned to Toronto in 2017. Barrett’s first collection of stories, Young Skins (Grove Atlantic, 2014), won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2014. His work has been published in The New YorkerA Public SpaceGranta, and The Stinging Fly. In 2015, Barrett was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35.” Homesickness in Canada is published by McClelland & Stewart through Penguin Random House Canada.

Jane Christmas’s memoir, Open House: A Life in Thirty-two Moves, was published by HarperCollins in March, 2020, on the first day of lockdown. Open House is reviewed here.

  • Colin Barrett, “You Write a Book and…,” The Irish Times, March 5, 2022.
  • The Canadian connection for Colin Barrett is described in “From Rural Ireland to downtown Toronto…,” Steven Beattie, The Toronto Star, May 11, 2022.
  • “Frank O’Connor Short Story Award Goes to “new young genius” Colin Barrett, by Alison Flood. The Guardian, July 11, 2014.
  • The film version of Barrett’s short story, “Calm With Horses,” screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
  • Interview with Colin Barrett by Tadhg Hoey in Bomb, May 4, 2022.
  • Barrett has a story in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, 2022 edited by Sara Paretsky.
  • Anne Enright reviews Homesickness in The Guardian, March 10, 2022.

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor