In Colin Barrett's collection of short stories Young Skins, the plots teem with characters your parents probably warned you away from. Some are violent, some are addicts and others are just lost — adrift in a gritty world in which they see no chance of escape.
But it's not all bleak.
In the latest installment of the Weekend Reads series, author Tessa Hadley explains why Barrett's book — poised between darkness and light-hearted humor — is worth picking up.
On her reasons for recommending the collection
It's set in a small town somewhere in Ireland, and these could look from the outside [like] pretty miserable lives. Young people, we don't hear much about them at work or they're selling dope or whatever ... there's quite a lot of angst.
But at the same time, first of all, he's an incredibly funny writer. But, as well as that, he has this kind of lovely poetic language that he uses to describe these lives and it's something about that mismatch — with this lovely, high-flown playful writing — that's what I can't resist.
On the dynamics between male and female characters in the book
If anybody is stuck in these stories, helpless in various cycles of doomed violence or just a kind of fatalism, it's the boys — it's the boys and the men. In one of the stories in the middle of the collection, the girl who is looking after the protagonist's baby — she's ironing, has got piles of ironing, but she's also got textbooks because she's going to go back to college. And there's another girl in another story who's off to higher education.
It's the girls who seem to get out and make their escape. I have no idea whether that represents the reality of a sociology in contemporary Ireland, but ... certainly that's Colin Barrett's story about the genders.
On the humor in Barrett's stories
I think without that [humor], actually, they wouldn't work. They would be portentous or something. But that extravagant style which I talked about — and which you could hear in the extract I read — really, really almost over the top. ... Some of the descriptions of the individuals: There's a couple of henchman who come in with one of the bad guys into the pub at one point, and they are what you get if you'd asked the gods for henchmen — two slabs of meat.
But another thing: In that funniness there's a kind of generosity, I think, so that in most of these stories, no matter what deadly paths the protagonist seems set upon or what a mess they're making, actually the humor of it enjoys them. It actually likes these people.