Wild Houses, Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett’s Debut Novel ‘Wild Houses’ Unfolds Predictably

The narrative in Colin Barrett’s debut novel Wild Houses unfolds predictably, without much in the way of plot twists or surprises.

Wild Houses
Colin Barrett
March 2024

Colin Barrett is a renowned short-story writer whose debut novel, Wild Houses, is set in the west of Ireland. The story brings to life a gaggle of minor-league tough guys trying to make their way in the (under)world. 

As to the plot, the Ferdia brothers are drug dealers, along with their friend Cillian. Cillian holds in safekeeping, for their boss, €30k worth of drugs, which he buries in a turlough, a type of meadow unique to western Ireland that occasionally floods to become a temporary lake. It floods, destroying the boss’ stash. The Ferdia brothers daydream a basic plan to recoup the boss’s money: kidnap Cillian’s younger brother, Doll, and hold him for ransom at the remote home of their cousin Dev.  

As Wild Houses opens, the brothers arrive unannounced at Dev’s doorstep with the kidnapped Doll in tow. Dev, huge of frame and hand and rendered deeply passive in the face of incessant bullying in school, is now a docile adult, unhappy but accommodating when the brash brothers show up with the disheveled Doll.

A “wild house” is a house where drug dealers and other scruffy types hang out. Dev’s home becomes a wild house when he grudgingly allows the Ferdia brothers to install Doll. Although they tie Doll to a cot in the basement at night, Dev and the brothers are generally, and surprisingly, cordial to him during his stay. They eat together and engage in extensive banter throughout Doll’s captivity.  

So it is jarring when Dev finds Gabe, one of the brothers, trying to drown Doll in the bathtub.

“Gabe glanced in the direction of Dev, his eyes hot and indiscriminate. He grit his jaw, firmed his grasp on Doll’s shoulder and neck, and pitched him head first into the tub. … [Gabe] climbed up on top of him, knee on his back [and] Dev watched Doll’s legs scrambling…”

Gabe would have succeeded had Dev not put a stop to it with hands as large as “excavator buckets”. The brothers are holding Doll hostage for one purpose: to incentivize Cillian to come up with the ransom money in the amount he owes the boss. It is unclear why they would try to drown him.

Wild Houses places a standard kidnap story in an interesting setting with engaging characters—but it is a standard kidnap story nonetheless—a kidnapping and a duly executed plan to raise the ransom. The narrative unfolds predictably, without much in the way of plot twists or surprises, except for the attempted drowning. Although the plan is embedded within a good deal of backstory and conversation that slow the plot’s cadence, the writing is often seeded with well-written passages.  At times, the writing is reminiscent of that of Cormac McCarthy:

“He sniffed and wiped at his wet eyes with the heels of his palms and stared hard into the black of the sky until he could make out again the radiant  debris of the stars.”

At times, the narration becomes oddly philosophical, given the nature of the characters:

“There’s nothing wrong with talking to God. That’s just pleading your case  into the air…the trouble begins when God starts talking back.”

Contemplating suicide and eternity, Dev takes a furtive midnight walk to a cliff but considers the drop insufficient.

“[Dev] was trying to imagine being dead, dead for all eternity… Dev could imagine the passing of a hundred years, a thousand …, but the problem was that any span of time you could think of…was nonetheless finite, a chunk of time that passed, and, by passing, ended.  And if it ended, it wasn’t eternity.”

Wild Houses characters’ interactions and motivations are presented in granular detail, often in evocative language, with colloquial dialogue serving as an effective vehicle for transmitting backstory. Dialogue can, especially in debut novels, become stilted when used to transmit backstory, characters telling one another what they must already know, but Barrett does not fall into that trap.

Between the plot points, though, Barrett layers in many conversations and other extended scenes that are interesting but often tangential, failing to move the core narrative along. These passages are elaborated with expertise, but there is an absence of narrative pulse, especially important in a kidnap tale, as well as the depth and complexity that would have been provided by a subplot.

Barrett is an award-winning author of short-story collections; perhaps his experience crafting tales in short-story form possibly accounts for the sense that this simple but engaging kidnap narrative might not be sufficient to bear the weight of a novel’s longer format. Still, Wild Houses is a debut novel worthy of attention, portending future long-form narratives of greater heft. The author’s strong writing skills are definitely up for the task.

RATING 6 / 10