By Colin Barrett
Jonathan Cape £14.99 hardback
When a book comes emblazoned with praise from Anne Enright – one of my favourite contemporary authors – I sit up and take notice. From his publishers comes the promise that here is a book crackling with energy and menace, and for once that’s not empty hyperbole. Young Skins, the debut short story anthology from Colin Barrett, does not disappoint.
The seven stories in this anthology are all set in the same fictitious Irish village, a dead-end town home to no one who is not downwardly mobile or flagrantly down and out. It’s a town with “No Future” stamped all over it. A town you leave, if you want to get ahead, and crawl back to when those dreams go sour.
Barrett’s characters are mainly small time crooks and young men without prospects, moving in a world of teenage mums and full-time drunks. At the heart of this collection is a sense of finality, a big, damp blanket of “twas ever thus”.
It is remarkable, then, that these stories are not depressing, in that way that Richard Yates’s work can be (Reading his collected works in one gulp I felt ready to open a vein, despite their brilliance). In a story called Bait, for example, the narrator is set upon in a dark wood by two women he’s spent the night hanging out with. Yet even as they sing a menacing little song about sucking the eyeballs out of his face, he feels only rapture, and the story ends on a surprisingly believable up beat.
Though all of Barrett’s first person narrators are verbose to a degree that seems to belie their education, the impossibility of communication is a striking theme in this anthology. As the protagonist of The Clancy Kid says, “So much of friendship is . . . the saying of nothing in place of something.”
Things are far worse between men and women, who can never say what they really mean to one another and never adequately express their longing. These glancing encounters feel achingly real. In The Clancy Kid, again, the protagonist, Jimmy, has spent the night with his on again off again squeeze, taking it as a sign that they are on again. The next day he overhears her announcing her engagement to the father of her child – a child, Jimmy muses, who was so nearly his. As the story concludes we realise that Jimmy regrets not just the loss of his girl, but the lost futures, the children who will never be.
The lines of communication are no less tangled between parents – mainly mums, the dads are largely absent – and their offspring. The mother in Stand Your Skin lives with a grown son, who has never been the same since taking a boot to the face. As he stomps to his bedroom after another night on the tiles, she lies before the television thinking, “There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.”
It’s precisely this dexterity with language that makes Barrett’s work so very good. Every now and then he veers towards the purple, but he always pulls back in time, and it’s lovely seeing someone taking chances, someone unafraid to go too far. Barrett’s feels like a talent that’s good for the long haul. I look forward to watching his career blossom, and reading whatever comes next.