Measured Violence in “Wild Houses”


The real world doesn’t deliver adversity in novel-sized chapters. Rarely do we enjoy perfect hindsight or the ability to glean meaning from violence or misfortune. In that sense, the unforgiving Ireland of Colin Barrett’s new novel, Wild Houses, feels uncomfortably familiar in its complexity and matter-of-fact ruthlessness. 

Barrett accomplishes much with an economy of words in this brooding portrayal of a kidnapping in a small, Irish town. Wild Houses is quite an achievement, a novel of crisp sentences and understated language that propel a gripping, cinematic narrative. We can only hope this award-winning short story writer has no personal experience with the topic of his first novel; the picture he paints of organized crime in the Irish countryside is just as convincing for its casual brutality as it is for the locals’ acceptance of such violence. 

Every kidnapping story needs a hideout or safe house where no one would think to look. In Wild Houses, that location is the country home of Dev Hendrick, a gentle giant and possible agoraphobe. In the eyes of Barrett’s villains, Dev’s “wolfish” cousins, the Ferdia brothers, there is no better place to stow a victim than the dusty house where Dev lives—alone but for his comically self-important dog, Georgie—in a medicated state of mourning in the aftermath of his mother’s death. Though “Irish houses tended to have attics, not basements,” Dev’s absent father had been inspired by American television shows to build a basement, and that is where the Ferdias deposit their victim, in a “raw unpainted concrete” space full of household junk, “mouldering comics,” and “an intestinally knotted hank of plugs and cabling that no longer plugged into anything.”

Barrett expertly characterizes Gabe and Sketch Ferdia as thuggish and unpredictable, prone to sudden bursts of rage and violence, and yet capable of tenderness and camaraderie. Sketch, the younger abductor, is a “handsome unit” with an expensive haircut, intricate tattoos, and the confidence of a mob enforcer. Later in the novel, after Dev reaches his breaking point and hurls him into a bathroom mirror, Sketch looks up from the floor, bloody and dazed, with a “wide-eyed, marveling smile.” Gabe Ferdia is a fitting foil, made of “skin and bone,” with “a face on him like a vandalized church, long and angular and pitted,” who wears the same bomber jacket wherever he goes with “Tequila Patrol” printed on the back.

The teenager they throw in the basement is Donal “Doll” English, the kind-hearted younger brother of the Ferdias true target, an erstwhile drug dealer named Cillian who owes the Ferdias’ boss a cash debt (a surprisingly modest amount; we later learn it is less than twenty thousand dollars). The Ferdias kidnap Doll to extort Cillian, who spends his days sleeping on his girlfriend’s couch, excommunicated from his mother and sulking in petulant exile. The tension rises from there. In alternating chapters, we follow Dev, as the Ferdias’ tactics make him increasingly uncomfortable, and Doll’s girlfriend, Nicky, as her efforts to free him from captivity drag her deeper into the moral swamp of the kidnappers’ world. 

Wild Houses showcases the wonderful musicality of the dialect in Ireland’s County Mayo. Gabe tells of the Ferdias’ last run-in with Cillian English:

“…myself and himself rocked up to the English’s gaff and right there… bate seven shades of shit out of the man and for a finish I stuck his hand in a drawer and Sketch roundhoused it until the drawer and the lad’s hand were in absolute ribbons. We told him that if he didn’t make good with Mulrooney pronto then the next time we saw him we’d be minded to fuck his entire carcass into the Moy.”

Barrett complements his mastery of Irish vernacular with evocative comparisons. I found myself pausing to savor descriptions that felt true to life. Rain “cluster[s] and pop[s] like bubble wrap” on a windshield, and the night sky is studded with the “radiant debris” of stars. A goat’s hooves emit a “dentate clicking,” and the plumage of a crow resembles “a deep navy… like petrol in water.” Active, strong verbs and direct language go a long way. After a night of drinking, Nicky “pitstopped at the Applegreens and chanced a cinnamon bun.”

Stylistically, the novel draws on a formidable tradition of Irish literary realism, from William Trevor to the short stories of James Joyce. Barrett turns a knowing eye toward his working class characters—bartenders and drug dealers and layabouts—and, like Joyce, his attention to their idiosyncrasies lends them a round quality. Barrett elevates the regular Joes and Janes of County Mayo without glossing over their hypocrisies or moral failures. The last we see of Dev, rather than celebrating his freedom from the Ferdia brothers, he is staring fixedly at his toes, locked in self-imposed stasis, apparently incapable of standing up on his own two feet. Without the looming threat of the Ferdias, Dev has no one to blame but himself for his failure to move forward in life. 

Wild Houses often feels like a film. The Ferdias’ comic duncery and penchant for unpredictable violence reminded me of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges or any number of Guy Ritchie gangster movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Cillian’s drug den could have easily appeared in Trainspotting, the classic fever dream about young addicts living in Edinburgh. Barrett’s entertaining dialogue and wit would find a welcome home on the big screen.

The tension in Wild Houses reaches its climax when the Ferdias finally decide what to do with Doll English. Rather than exploding into violence like the endings of famous kidnapping films—Reservoir Dogs or Dog Day Afternoon, for instance—Barrett’s story cools off in a controlled and quiet fashion. The tone and plot of the novel remain consistently measured, never veering toward the grandiose or theatrical. Nicky, Dev, Doll, and Cillian each emerge uniquely changed. Without spoiling the ending, I will admit that it left me slightly unsatisfied, with a lingering pang of hunger for some kind of redemption for these characters. 

Perhaps more wisely than I, Barrett resists redemption, and in so doing, gestures towards a more complicated world, one more fitting for our present geopolitical moment, in which we all seem to perch breathlessly on the edge of change in all its frightening possibility.

See Also


Wild Houses

by Colin Barrett

Grove Press

Published on March 12, 2024

Max Gray

Max Gray’s essays and criticism have appeared in the Chicago Review of Books and The Rumpus. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Cutbank, Mount Hope, and Jelly Bucket. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program. Learn more about him at


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