Young Skins by Colin Barrett

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.

imageThis is the opening of the first story in Colin Barrett’s collection of short stories Young Skins which explore life in a small town the west of Ireland, my final book for Reading Ireland month (hosted by 746 Books and The Fluff is Raging). The town is entirely fictional, you will find it on no map, but it is representative of many a small town in rural Ireland.

This is Barrett’s debut collection. Originally published by the wonderful independent Dublin based press, The Stinging Fly, it has since been picked up by Vintage Books. It was the Stinging Fly edition which I read. It has also been clearing up in the awards, winning the Guardian first book award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

When one thinks about modern rural Ireland and Ireland’s youth, there a couple of things which normally spring to mind; emigration, high unemployment and the decline of these downs usually due to the first two issues. Interestingly Barrett tackles none of these issues, at least not head on.  The stories are all told from the perspective of young men, aged somewhere in their twenties to early thirties. They are predominately the outsiders, the alcoholics and the local drug dealer. These are not the young men who left to go to college like the majority of their school friends, or emigrated in search of work. These are the men left behind, floating around the town often without any real direction or purpose. There is a sense of isolation, hopelessness and boredom permeating the stories.

The most striking element about the collection is the language. For a debut writer, Barrett’s command of language is outstanding. It is poetic and beautiful, contrasting strongly at times with a sense of bleakness. It is also thoroughly Irish, full of idioms and wonderful phrases, such as;

you know my cuntishness is as congenital as my cravenness. The only cure is no me.

That must be one of the most wonderful sentences in literature.

There are weaknesses in the collection. At times I found my attention waning. I would have preferred a greater deal of variation in the characters beyond a bunch of twenty something male wasters. I suspect that this is a character Barrett is comfortable with, a character he can understand.  There is a conspicuous lack of women in the collection. In fact from all bar one story they are almost entirely absent from the collection. This is a minor complaint though.

Based on this collection I believe we can expect great things from Barrett. He is poised to become one of the new voices in Irish literature, giving expression to the experiences of my generation.

Rating: 4/5

P.S: The Irish Times Bookclub have been reading Young Skins this month. Check out their bookclub section for interesting interviews with Colin Barrett and discussions on the collection.

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