“So much of friendship is merely that: the saying nothing in place of something.”
Colin Barrett, Young Skins (2013)
Colin Barrett’s understanding of human interaction knows when to make itself known. The writer himself certainly knows how to pack a punch. Young Skins is his debut short story collection, consisting of seven separate stories set in the fictional Irish town Glanbeigh. It’s a place where the same families have lived (and failed to leave) for generations. A sense of static, of stagnation transcends the collection. These are individuals who have rarely travelled outside their own county, whose minds never wander further than the bustling hub of Dublin but who, despite their shared struggle to untangle themselves from the confines of their lives, are each wonderfully different. I had a particularly softness for Bat in Stand Your Skin because although he is physically intimidating, he has a tenderness that the more delicately-formed lack. Hiding away from the town on his roof, drinking cans of beer he felt real, and I felt sorry for him.
Their paralysis feeds their actions. As The Clancy Kid’s narrator sagely notes in the quote above, relationships in a small town are maintained through diplomacy but it is often the failure to speak that causes the biggest problems. Miscommunication in the collection’s longest story Calm With Horses leads to murder, gunshots and the fall of a family drug business. The decision not to speak leads to Nuggin Tansey’s violent assault of Bat in Stand Your Skin. The narrator of The Clancy Kid fails to tell his on-off girlfriend how he actually feels, instead resorting to childish pranks and allows his best-friend Tug to obsess over a missing child by choosing not to speak out against it. Young Skins offers up a hundred other smaller instances where choosing not to say something turns out to be worse than say anything. Of course, saying nothing is a large part of friendship, and living in close quarters without incident, but Young Skins demonstrates that sometimes saying something is the right thing to do.
The language, the imagery Barrett provides creates a strong sense of place and cultural identity within the collection, but I found that at times the complex sentence structure made it difficult to read. The often open endings leave the reader with questions. They were stories that stayed with me after I finished them, while I searched for answers, and that is a sign of an interested reader. Perhaps, I thought, it suggested that there was no real ending, that the lives of Glanbeigh’s residents would continue just the same.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking read, and for someone like myself who aspires to write short-stories, Young Skins is a brilliant teacher.