Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday 11 April 2015

"Young Skins" by Colin Barrett (Vintage, 2014)

Before the first paragraph of the first story ("The Clancy Kid") ends, we realise how literate the young Irish first-person character is - "the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls" (p.3). But he doesn't seem to be an eng-lit student - far from it. His spoken language seems very different to the internalized narrative. The lyricism continues - "the evening sun is in its picturesque throes, the sky steeped in foamed reds and pinks" (p.11), and we get words of wisdom - "I say nothing. So much of friendship is merely that: the saying of nothing in place of something". But once the narrational game rules have been established, the plot and characterisation work well, and the descriptions are crisp - "He tucks his hand under the opposite armpit, like he's after catching a finger in a door jamb" (p.9).

"Bait" has a rather laboured, and in the end rather unnecessary infodump after a page or so. The ending's a surprize. "The Moon" has a infodump interlude a page or so in. Then near the end fishermen appear in order to provide some symbolism. Not my favourite story. I wasn't too impressed by "Stand your skin" either though it ends with an interesting PoV-switch.

"Calm With Horses" is a 70-page novella. Third-person privileged, which helps justify the lyricism even when it comes at strange times - "Brambles from the ditch threshed in through the window. Shards of glass bounced like loose change all over his legs"(p.119). I think it's a fine piece.

In paragraph 2 of "Diamonds" we get compressed backstory - "In the city I had drank away my job, money, a raft of friendships, one woman, and then another. My cat, a princely tortoiseshell tom named Ruckles, succumbed to a heart attack after eating a phial of damp cocaine he'd unearthed at the bottom of my closet while I was out on another all-night jag" (p.143). At the end the main character tries on a new identity, borrowing details from people he'd recently met. "Kindly Forget My Existence" continues this fluidity of identities. This time the deaths are off-stage, though a funeral's nearby. A man leaves a coat in a pub and never returns to collect it.

I like how we're dropped into a habitat rather than a head - a world of tattoos that have to be covered, scars, sons living with their mother, injured hands, kneeling, violence, drink and cigarettes. I like the relationship between action, exposition and dialogue - sometimes action precedes explanation, sometimes there's never an explanation; sometimes there are pages of dialogue, sometimes none. The author's adept whatever the mode.

Typo on p.138 - "umoving".

Other reviews

  • Chris Power (Guardian) (Throughout this extraordinary debut, but particularly in the excellent stories that bookend it, Colin Barrett is asking the right questions.)
  • Andrew McEnuff (Short Story Ireland) (a sustained and brilliant performance by a young writer of remarkable talent)
  • Rebecca Burns (Sabotage reviews) (‘Diamonds’ is the one story in the collection where Barrett’s raw, thumping narrative does not rattle through, and we are not dropped into the fully-formed life of the nameless, central character, as in other stories)
  • John Williams (New York Times) (Mr. Barrett does foundational things exceedingly well — structure, choices of (and switches in) perspective — without drawing attention to them. These are stories that are likely to be taught for their form. The only question after reading the book is whether Mr. Barrett’s groove is quite as wide as it is deep. )
  • David Robbins (Irish Independent) (These stories are moving and memorable and show a writer who understands people, place and the effects of porter on the human psyche.)

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