Member Reviews

The Heart in Winter is a strange beast. An Irish western? The prose is sometimes confusing, sometimes slow and sometimes delivered at breakneck speed. I found it intensely annoying but ultimately wonderful.

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A love story of sorts.

Tom is a poet and a drunk, one step ahead of his creditors and pondering the futility of his existence. Then, while assisting the local photographer, Tom sees Polly, a new bride, shipped in from the East coast, and his life will never be the same again.

The two flee the town together seeking a new life together but are pursued by bounty hunters, employed by Polly’s new husband.

The writing is beautiful and poetic and the imagery is evocative and often quite humorous. The relationship between Tom and Polly is well described. There seems little hope for the future but the two seize every opportunity to explore and cement their love.

Can fate forge a future for the lovers? Definitely worth reading to find out!

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'The Heart in Winter' is another masterful novel from Kevin Barry which fuses savage violence with dark comedy. This novel is a western, set in 1890s Butte, Montana. Tom Rourke, a hapless and penniless Irish-American dope addict and photographer's assistant, falls for Polly Gillespie, the mail-order bride of the upstanding (and self-flagellating) mine captain, Long Anthony Harrington. Just days into Polly's marriage, Tom and Polly head west together on a stolen Palomino pony, aiming for San Francisco. But Harrington is determined to get Polly back and to make Tom pay for what he has stolen, and sends a trio of Cornish gunmen on their trail.

Barry crafts a pacy and compelling narrative with prose that feels effortless. Alongside moments of graphic violence and gallows humour, Barry also conveys that sense of desperate longing for a better life which is at the heart of so much writing about America at this time and during other times. This is an entertaining and rewarding read. Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for sending me an ARC to review.

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The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry is a beautiful piece of literature. This is the first novel I have read from this author and there will be certainly more as the prose just flows. Illustrative, lyrical, fluid, deeply emotional, stunning

Thank you to Netgalley,Canongate and Kevin Barry for this brilliant ARC. My review is left voluntarily and all opinions are my own

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Rude, crude, and really quite good.

Absolutely bonkers, but I loved every word of this one. Just fantastic!

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Oh my god! This book is a gift. The language is completely intoxicating. The evocation of a particular time and particular place masterly. And Jesus Christ, those lovers - they have my heart entirely. It's been days since I finished this gorgeous, singular whirlwind of a novel and I'm still haunted by thoughts of poor Polly. One of the best books we will see this year, I'm certain of it!

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You never know if you're going to cry bucket or laugh but you surely know you will love every word you're going to reads.
A great reading experience, a master storyteller, a story about star-crossed lovers and a community full of weird/quirky characters.
The setting is the non human character: you love the descriptions and feel how forbidding it can be.
Great novel, loved it.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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It's a short review from me for a novella...a rip roaring western from the only man who can write this sort of mayhem and get away with it. Well played Mr Barry.

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A beautiful book with a very unique voice. You felt like you were really in the heads of Polly and Tom on their misadventures through the American Montana frontier in the winter of 1891. A romance for the ages, the book is funny, haunting, and heartbreaking all in one. I thoroughly enjoyed this and will be looking for other Kevin Barry books to read next! Highly recommend.

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The Heart in Winter is a story of love set in 1890s Montana amongst a lawless mining community. Tom Rourke meets Polly Gillespie when he takes her wedding photograph with the serious and devout mine captain Anthony Harrington. Unable to be freely together Tom and Polly escape on a stolen horse to try and reach San Francisco. Captain Harrington won’t let Polly escape easily and sends a posse of men to track down the lovers.

A cross between a love story and an adventure tale the Heart in Winter is a pacy novel which leaves us holding our breath willing Tom and Pom to overcome a doomed future. I loved the characters and the book does not disappoint.

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This sounded like my perfect go to book and whilst I do appreciate the lovely writing style of Kevin Barry this book just didn’t make it on to my favourite reads list.

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To inhabit Butte, Montana in 1891 is to live in a place where violence and lawlessness is rife. Many immigrants have been drawn to the town – from Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and beyond – by the prospect of work in the area’s copper mines, or maybe even of striking it rich themselves. It’s a tough life and for many the only way to get through it is with alcohol or drugs supplied by Chinese traders, known as Celestials.

Tom Rourke is a drifter, drunk and opium addict who ekes out a living writing songs, love letters for illiterate miners hoping to attract a bride, and assisting in a photographic studio. It’s how he meets Polly Gillespie, the new bride of mine captain, Anthony Harrington. Polly has her own troubled past and soon discovers her new life as Harrington’s wife is going to bring neither happiness nor fulfilment. There’s a kind of tragic inevitability that Tom and Polly – both flawed, damaged individuals – will be drawn to each other. In fact, Tom has always himself believed he won’t make a good end – ‘What he reckons is you was born to a dark star’ – and has thought about hastening that end. Polly is a survivor, someone who can reinvent herself – and has done. She perhaps comes closest to being her true self with Tom.

In the hands of the author the landscape of 19th century Montana is simultaneously unforgiving but full of beauty. ‘Winter by now was truly the sour landlord of the forest.’ The characters leap off the page whether that’s the fanatically religious Harrington, punishing himself for his own lustful thoughts, or Jago Marrak, a giant of a man and the leader of the trio hired to track down the runaways. There are passages of wonderful prose such as in the chapter entitled ‘Nightmusic’.

‘About this time it became the common perception that trains sounded lonesome, especially in the hours of darkness, and you could not deny it looking across the yards at Pocatello Junction on that rainy December night as the Utah & Northern went out for Salt Lake City and left a long forlorn calling in its wake. The rain came slantwise and harder now across the sheds and the yards and the depot.. There was the distant roll of a piano line as it played in counterpoint to the night train’s fading call. There was some distant jeering also. The quartermoon climbed by slow degrees through the cloudbank to add to the night’s yearnful air and still the beating of the rain came down on the cars of the resting stock and somewhere in the town the jags of a woman’s screeching were cut short.’

The Heart in Winter is a enthralling, skilfully crafted combination of love story and adventure story. I was completely captivated by Tom and Polly’s story which, although you suspect is doomed from the start, you can’t help hoping will turn out differently. ‘…And wasn’t it a remarkable turn of events that showed love and death they co-exist in our violent and sentimental world. They might even depend one on the other.’

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While “The Heart in Winter” might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely a novel worth acknowledging for its unique blend of influences. Kevin Barry’s evocative prose certainly captures the harsh beauty of a Montana winter, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s desolate landscapes. The narrative’s unpredictable twists and turns, with echoes of Flann O’Brien’s absurdist touch, would definitely appeal to readers who enjoy a bit of literary subversion.

However, the challenging nature of the story – perhaps the bleakness or the unconventional narrative style – could hinder enjoyment. It’s a complex work that demands a lot from the reader.

For those seeking a powerful and beautifully written story that pushes boundaries, “The Heart in Winter” is a strong recommendation. But for those who prefer a more straightforward narrative, it might be a tougher read.

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It's a long time since a book punched me in the gut like this one*.
Although I'm Irish, I rarely read Irish authors, but Barry is superlative and heart-breaking.
The Heart in Winter is an elegy to the multitude of nationalites that carved out the American West, often literally with their bodies; it is a comedy; it is a paean to language itself; it is a philosophy of life; and it is, of course, a love story.
Barry's plots are often quite simple - here, boy meets girl, she's married to someone else, but they elope anyway. Where Barry excels is in his use of language: poetic, obscene, riveting from the very first opening sentence - the only reason the reader will ever take a break is because he is so intense, so evocative, so redolent of the time and place, that one has to step back and make sure one can still travel home to the 21st century. Those who do not know the Irish language (Gaelic, as it's called outside Ireland) may not be aware, but Barry's sentence construction and colloquialisms rely heavily on Irish, translated, as it were, into English (technical term is Hiberno-English). As with the humour: as a long-colonised country, the Irish have a tendency to gallows-humour; and even our obscenities (Barry perfectly mirrors the Irish use of such today) are not meant with the viciousness with which they might be imbued in another culture (after all, the worst has already happened, what's a few curses?) Indeed, the "bad language" leavens Barry's sheer lyricism, makes his poetry, which might otherwise be just too rich for mere mortals, human enough that the reader can carry on without getting an embolism.
And then there's the love story, the meeting of the lovers, their ill-starred flight, and the eventual outcome. No spoiler here, but I dare anyone to just read the ending once.
You could do worse things with your time than to learn large parts of this book off by heart, to comfort you in times of spiritual and emotional despair.

My thanks to Netgalley for the ARC of this book, one of those very few books that will stay with me forever.

*Preparation for the next life, by Atticus Lish, in case you're wondering.

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Kevin Barry is one of my favourite Irish writers so I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. Would ‘The Heart in Winter’ meet expectations, given my admiration for his previous books?

Butte, Montana

It’s 1881 in the tough copper mining town of Butte, Montana, where we first meet Irish immigrant Tom Rourke. He’s fully submerged in the various dens of iniquity which make up the town, well known in the drinking establishments. There’s something of the ruffian rebel poet to Rourke, and he’s an instantly likeable but flawed character.

Also arriving in Butte is Polly Gillespie, promised to mine Captain, Long Anthony Harrington, a man who would prefer to suffer for his pleasures. Not so Polly, believing naively that this new life would be different from the one she left, quickly feeling trapped in the marriage, and looking for a bit of colour in her life. So it’s inevitable that she should cross paths with Tom Rourke……….

It always takes me a few pages to adjust to Kevin Barry. I have to tune into his cadence, the vernacular, the lyricism. What sort of a world is this? For me it started way back with ‘City of Bohane’. But then once I’m in, I’m in; You get the air he’s playing and that’s it. There’s only a few writers I would say that about - there’s a musical quality to his writing, a sort of free flowing, crackling energy is the only way I can attempt to describe it.

And he can’t write a dull sentence. The words and phrases fizz, pinging about the page. Lots of vivid imagery, never overblown. Look at this for an opener:

On Wyoming Street in the evening a patent Irish stumbled by, some crazy old meathead in a motley of rags and filthy buck-skin, wild tufts of hair sticking out the ears, the eyes burning now like hot stars, now clamped shut in a kind of ecstasy, and he lurched and tottered on broken boots like a nightmare overgrown child, like some massive obliterated eejit child, and he sang out his wares in a sweet clear lilting-


Hot po-tay-toes?

Hot pot-ah-toes a pe-nny?

His verse swung across the raw naked street and back again, and was musical, but he had no potatoes at all.


I was surprised that this is his first western, because the setting and scenario suits his writing perfectly. A story of starcrossed lovers and revenge, a chase across a harsh winter terrain, a man in a long black coat in pursuit, moments of sporadic brutal violence, dark humour, and an oddball supporting cast.

And all the time this wonderful writing, poetic and raw, conjuring up this often brutal but sometimes tender tale. And I was never bored - there were moments of absurdity, and times when I had to re-read, just so I wouldn’t lose the flow of the writing.

Other passages of writing I just had to revisit for the sheer pleasure of it. And the pace varies - sometimes frenetic, sometimes measured. It never felt dense, but rather I was in too much of a rush with the story. And what a story.

I mentioned ‘City of Bohane’ earlier, but I’ve also enjoyed ‘Beatlebone’ ‘Night boat to Tangier’ and ‘Dark lies the island’ by the same author. But I think this one might just open up his work to a wider audience, or at least I hope so.

As you can maybe tell, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘A heart in Winter’. One of the finest Irish writers around creating an Irish western - a freewheeling, engrossing, fizzing, vivid, heartbreaker of a book.

Thank you to Canongate and Netgalley for the ARC. Published on 6/6/2024

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I was sent a copy of The Heart in Winter by Kevin Barry to read and review by NetGalley. Oh my goodness, what an exquisite book! Such beautiful writing – tender, emotional, tragic, sublime – it really drew me in and I didn’t want it to end. If this novel is indicative of the author’s work then I will definitely be reading more! 5 stars plus from me!!!

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This is the first book by Kevin Barry that I’ve read, and I was certainly drawn to it by the comparison with one of my all time favourite westerns, ‘The sisters Brothers’ by Patrick DeWitt.

This is quite simply, a stunning piece of literature. The sing song lyrical prose which in turn, creates a deep sense of space and time, is in my opinion is its greatest success in this short novel. Initially it did take me a while to adapt to Barry’s style, but you absolutely must persevere; however, as for the characters, I sadly held no affection for Polly or Tom, and their rollicking romance. For me, this wasn’t what I appreciated about the novel; instead it’s one to be enjoyed for its humour and the incredible prose on each and every page.

Many thanks to Net Galley for an ARC.

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I enjoyed this latest novel from Kevin Barry but didn't find it was as captivating as his previous novels. Barry is a hugely talented author and The Heart in Winter extends his range to a new environment with a number of interesting characters but I struggled to feel much empathy for Tom and Polly.

In spite of this, I look forward to reading Barry's next book which I expect I will enjoy much more.

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I had a digital copy of this book, then went to listen to Kevin Barry read excerpts of it at the Dalkey Book Festival, so I had to then buy the audio. Barry gave us some insight into where the story came from and some of the things that happened in the book. He is as good as any of the best narrators I’ve come across on other books, and this makes it special, as you think you are getting more insight than the voices you’d make up in your own head.
It’s the story of a lovestruck couple on the run in the late 1800s and they have a bounty hunter chasing them. Westerns wouldn’t normally be my thing, but the dialogue and interaction between the two main characters make the Western element irrelevant.

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From GoodReads:
A Romantic Western.......not.
This is a book that grew on me as I went.
A story of forbidden and seemingly doomed love set in cold, desolate Montana.
Beautifully and poetically written. Two richly drawn characters, loved and hated, all set in a described landscape where we can actually feel the cold and the menace.

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