The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry review – fast and loose on the American frontiers

The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry review – fast and loose on the American frontiers

Kevin Barry, a writer known for his dedication to both short stories and novels, has once again showcased his unique talent with his latest work, “The Heart in Winter.” This novel, set on the American frontiers, is a testament to Barry’s restless originality and his ability to take his storytelling in unexpected directions. Since his debut with “There Are Little Kingdoms” in 2007, Barry has never repeated himself, always exploring new themes and settings.

“The Heart in Winter” is an American western novel that has been 25 years in the making. The story begins in 1891 in Butte, Montana, a town known for its mining industry and its high population of Irish immigrants. The city, described as a “town of whores and chest infections,” is a real place despite its seemingly fictional name. The protagonist, Tom Rourke, is a man struggling with addiction and a desire for peace, yet he finds himself entangled in various misadventures.

Tom’s life takes a turn when he meets Polly Gillespie, a woman bored with her new husband, Long Anthony Harrington. Their encounter sparks a passionate affair, leading to a plan involving arson, theft, and a daring escape out west. The novel’s narrative is rich with vivid descriptions and lively dialogue, making each scene come alive on the page.

Barry’s writing style in “The Heart in Winter” is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, with its run-on sentences and minimal use of commas. This style adds to the novel’s atmospheric quality, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the story’s epic feel despite its brevity. The novel’s structure, which starts densely before narrowing into a single narrative thread, keeps readers engaged and invested in the characters’ fates.

As Tom and Polly embark on their journey, they encounter a series of colorful characters, including a Norwegian bounty hunter and a sheriff with a grudge against Tom. The novel’s quest and chase elements add to its excitement, while the relationship between Tom and Polly deepens, providing moments of quiet connection amidst the chaos.

Barry’s novel also explores themes of fate and destiny, with characters often feeling as though their actions are predetermined. This sense of inevitability is reinforced by Barry’s playful reminders of the artifice of fiction, such as references to “The Twelve Rules for Writing Western Adventures.” These meta-narrative elements add a layer of complexity to the story, making it a thought-provoking read.

In the final chapters, Barry shifts the novel’s tone, offering a more introspective and satisfying conclusion. This change in pace allows for a deeper exploration of the characters’ inner lives, adding emotional depth to the story. Barry’s willingness to take risks with his writing pays off, resulting in a novel that is both entertaining and profound.

“The Heart in Winter” is a testament to Kevin Barry’s talent and originality. His ability to create vivid, memorable characters and settings, combined with his unique writing style, makes this novel a standout addition to his body of work. For readers looking for a fresh take on the western genre, “The Heart in Winter” is a must-read.

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