Young Skins: Stories by Colin Barrett (Stinging Fly Press, €12.99) has just won the Guardian First Book Award. The judges said the Barrett is “a writer who can go the distance”. Here is my review:
The Irish short story is in rude health. Clare Keegan, Claire Kilroy and Kevin Barry are all practising their art at the highest level. Now, they have a new companion: 23-year-old Colin Barrett from Mayo.
Barrett sets his new collection of stories in the wild west of his home county, in a place he calls Glanbeigh. A river, called the Mule, runs through it, and by its banks stories of lust, violence and revenge play out.
His setting and subject matter – the plight of the young rural male – invite comparison with Kevin Barry, whose collection There Are Little Kingdoms explored the same territory.
Indeed, there are further similarities: both writers set a story in a rural pool hall where the local advance-and-retreat of courtship takes place. Barry’s story ‘Atlantic City’ is a brilliant, almost fond, evocation of a long summer’s evening in a lonely town.
But Barrett’s ‘Bait’ is darker, more menacing tale altogether. Although both stories deal with sexual longing, Barrett’s is more raw and affecting. There is a menace in the air in Barrett’s story. He doesn’t have Barry’s linguistic exuberance and energy, but he has a power all his own.
The centrepiece of ‘Young Skins’ is a 73-page novella, ‘Calm With Horses’, which deals with the aftermath of an attempted sexual assault. On the surface, it’s about how a small-town drugs operation falls apart, but it’s the characterisation that makes it so memorable and affecting.
Arm is the muscle of the drug gang, and Dympna is the brains. They are a brutal pair, yet there is such tenderness in the story that you are brought both to understand and forgive them.
In ‘The Clancy Kid’ – already anthologised in ‘Town and Country’ (Faber & Faber, €9.99; edited by Kevin Barry) – two friend mosey about town, one obsessing about a missing child case, the other lamenting the loss of his old girlfriend.
In ‘The Bait’, a kind, simple man working in the local Maxol garage can’t bring himself to express his feelings for a young girl who works with him and watches and she leaves the bar with someone else.
Barrett’s use of language is powerful and surprising – he talks about the “vasculature” of pipes on the underside of an upturned car, and a character worries that people are watching “the bulky hydraulics of his jaw” as he eats his dinner.
These stories are moving and memorable and show a writer who understands people, place and the affects of porter on the human psyche.