Colin Barrett’s Young Skins won the now defunct Frank O’Connor Prize last year, and in many ways it’s easy to see why. His collection offers a perhaps well-trod path into the lives of young men and women – usually poor, often drinking, drunk, pub-bound, stoned, often (usually) with miserable lives. Barrett sets his stories in Ireland, and while there are linguistic markers, circumstances, locations, and ambiences that ensure the reader never forgets where we are – I felt resonance between Barrett’s world and parts of my own. To my mind, this universality-within-specificity is the sign of a good piece of literature.
My favourites is ‘Diamonds’. I actually read it first in the Guardian, prompting a quick purchase of his collection. Earlier, I mentioned my love of nested stories. Yes, that’s right. ‘Diamonds’ has them in spades. Or, it has two of them. What’s great, though, is that Barrett does something totally interesting with them – the subject of this brief post. On a related note his play here with narrative reminds me of David Foster Wallace, which the Guardian piece mentions as one of Barrett’s influences.
‘Diamonds’, first of all, starts with a cracking piece of description.
I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come. I left on a bright morning in August, dozing fitfully as the train drifted through the purgatorial horizontals of the midlands, heading west. The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. (Barrett, Colin, ‘Diamonds’ in Young Skins, p. 143)
If you can do sky or sunsets right I’m on-board. It’s almost a rule. This – being simply drenched in light is lovely; but ‘drenched in pearlescent light’ is excessive, exotic, rich. Then comes perhaps my favourite image in all of Barrett’s book ‘enormous chrome confections of cloud’ – which is so good next to the light’s pearlescence it makes my head fizz. It’s heavenly, sugary, coloured right. A sky done good.
A broader joy with ‘Diamonds’ lies in the plot. An alcoholic wanders about Ireland from town to town. When he returns home and picks up work as a PE teacher, he hears an old man’s story about how he lost his hand. He then sleeps with the mother of one of his pupils – she tells him a second story. Finally, he moves on. When he sleeps with a third woman, he himself relays to her a version of both stories (the old man’s and the mother’s) but merged together, mixed up; the mixing or combining helping to convey how fragmented and basically screwed-up his life actually is.
Where I think Barrett is really strong is in his combinations. Exquisite, ornate language, with narrative cleverness, with life’s grim reality. ‘Diamonds’ leaves me with ambivalence; half a thrill or awe feeling (at the combined-nested-narratives) and half morose feeling (as I appreciate just how utterly miserable some people are).