★★★★★ (out of 5)
“My town,” Jimmy says in The Clancy Boy, the first entry in this luminous collection of short stories, “is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.”
It was with a slight sense of ennui that I picked up Young Skins by Colin Barrett. I may not have been to Glanbeigh, the fictional town in Mayo in which his debut is set, but I had a feeling that I was familiar with it anyway.
From Rob Doyle and Kevin Barry to Eoin C Macken and Donal Ryan, there has been some exceptional novels dealing with ‘angry young Irish men’ published within the last few years and I was unsure how Barrett’s collection would differentiate itself.
I need not have worried. This is an exceptional debut, and one of the best collection of short stories that I have read in years. Barrett is an assured writer, shaping sentences to his will with a confidence that makes it look easy, each sentence begging to be read and re-read to uncover layers of hidden meanings.
Taken individually, each story is deftly woven and rendered, but as a whole the collection offers a devastatingly honest vision of masculinity in post-Celtic Tiger rural Ireland.
From a bouncer in the local night-club in The Moon to two men avoiding the funeral of a woman they both loved by hiding away in a pub in Kindly Forget My Existence, Barrett perfectly encapsulates the claustrophobia of small-town life, and the feelings of futility that can arise as a result.
There is a constant threat of violence, an anger simmering just beneath the surface, and yet Barrett treats the world of Glanbeigh and its inhabitants with a surprising sensitivity.
There is a raw tenderness to Barrett’s writing that makes this collection all the more affecting, and that forces the reader to pay closer attention to what could easily be dismissed as mere petty lives.
After winning the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Guardian First Book Award in 2014, there can be no doubting that Young Skins marks the arrival of an electrifying new talent.