The figurative language of Sebastian Barry….

Reading time: About 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors from Sebastian Barry…

Sebastian Barry is an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, who was named Laureate for Irish Fiction, 2019–2021 and who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novels three times.

His most recent novel, Old God’s Timetells the story of a retired Irish police officer who is forced to come to terms with a decades-old case, that had clearly marked him. A colleague recommended this book to me and I had entirely forgotten I’d read several Barry novels some years back.

Sebastian Barry not only knows how to tell a good story; he also has an acute eye and ear for figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • O’Casey drank his tea down in one swift gulp, like a cowboy drinking whiskey.
  • “How are you doing, Mr. Kettle?” said the one on the right, a nice big lump of a young man with a brushstroke for a moustache, a touch Hitlerian if the truth were known.
  • The feeling seems to drop through him fluidly, like an otter into a stream.
  • He knew there was almost always comedy stuck in the breast of human affairs, quivering like a knife.
  • The rain that had drenched the branches of the trees had lost heart, but the wind still pulled greedily at what was already there, making the drops fly at him, fly at everything, the sunlight inserting gleams and glimmers into them, like a million silver sprat.
  • He brewed up some tea so strong it was like the colour of hell in a cup.
  • Who owned the white Ford Escort outside the premises, as clean as a baby’s soother?
  • Prendergast fed the numbers into his magnificent register, all steel and brass, hitting each key with his fingers like a heron striking at little fish.
  • Between the dark of the hall and the lights in the room behind him, his sparse hair was lit in relief, a halo, like the painting of a medieval saint.
  • The lid of Tom’s head lifted and puttered, indeed like a pot of potatoes just coming to the boil.
  • Trews [trousers] so patched they were all patches, like a map of the broken-up districts of Yugoslavia.
  • He wore a cardigan so threadbare he might have invited a spider to have it for its web.
  • The doorbell rang. The sound was like a spray of bullets.
  • Joe [was] stricken, but confused, like a man being told urgent and catastrophe-averting information in a foreign language.
  • His uniform was crisp and dry-cleaned, and an air conditioner roared somewhere like a cage of tigers, but as if far away.
Scroll to Top