Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is another debut which emerges from the abundance of talented up-and-coming novelists . This collection of short stories is set in an unspecified rural area of Ireland. It creates a world in which the young are embracing their youthfulness and living in the moment, seeking thrills, adventures and making mistakes as young people do. Their world is rough and tough, fuelled with alcohol, drugs, petty crime and violence.
Young Skins is short and sweet, with seven stories all focusing on male protagonists. Although each story is a separate entity, they share similar tones and the same sort of dirty, grungy atmosphere which evokes an overall cinematic feel. The premises of these tales are somewhat formulaic; they often feature a pair of friends, one being quiet and reserved, the other more outgoing, with one of them being ‘the muscle’.
From the opening story, “The Clancy Kid”, Barrett’s talent is quickly demonstrated as he establishes the tone, atmosphere, setting and dynamic between characters – “There was the usual crowd; micro-minied girls on spike heels, explosively frizzy hair… donkey-necked boys… Fandangos was a hot box. Neon strobed and pulsed, dry ice fumed the air”. We quickly learn of the antics these youngsters get involved in – getting into scrapes, vandalising and courting girls. Throughout the collection, Barrett is concise and paces the narrative very well. The time spent with each character feels perfectly allocated- the more memorable pieces are longer with more eventful , deeper plots.
One such example is the collection’s best piece, “Calm with Horses”. This story is excellently written, with a terrific plot, convincing characterisation and layers of themes attached to the central character Douglas ‘Arm’ Armitage. It echoes elements of old mobster films as Arm becomes caught up in the world of drug dealing and crime families. Not only is “Calm With Horses” a gripping story, it’s also an in-depth character study of Arm and his relationship with others in his life. All of this is packed into one story without it feeling overcrowded, making it a definite highlight of Young Skins, helped by vivid writing such as “Hector and Paudi Devers were the younger brothers of Dympna’s deceased father…they cultivated an especially fragrant and potent strain of marijuana…the operation was small but professionally appointed in scale…”.
Barrett’s detailed language makes his tales vivid in the reader’s imagination. Each scene has been well thought out, from its aesthetics to its action and dialogue – “He slams the empty onto the counter as a head rush ignites behind his eyes ; he sees sparks and a wavelet of nausea migrates from the middle of his face into the pit of his stomach”. Barrett’s rich use of language not only adds to the careful construction of images but, when laid next to more colloquial language and profanities, makes the writing more memorable and sharper- not only when depicting speech between characters but also in the narrative. Curses and vulgar language cut into Barrett’s vocabulary making it less clear as to who or where the narrator is in relation to the story. “Val looked back down at his cocked pinkie… it was a cunt hair, electric red…”.
If there is anything which would improve Young Skins, it is that it could benefit from all of its stories being of the same standard and length of “Calm With Horses”, which sets the bench mark of Barrett’s best writing in this collection. As it stands, Young Skins is a tremendously good read which showcases Barrett’s talents in writing fine fiction within the confines of the short story format. It would be very interesting to see Barrett revisit and expand this corner of rural Ireland and to be able to delve deeper into these characters’ journeys in the form of a full length novel.
Hamzah M. Hussain