Skintown – Ciarán McMenamin
Release Date: 06/04/2017
Publisher: Doubleday (Review Copy Provided)
Pages: pp. 288 RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available for preorder here (£9.49)
After I finished reading Skintown, I got the feeling that there are probably going to be a lot of lazy comparisons to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (not least because of the recent release of Danny Boyle’s sequel to the film adaptation) when the novel is released in a few months. Some people might see the combination of drugs and ‘not English city’ and draw their flawed conclusion. Those people are missing out on a hilarious, energetic work that drags you along on one hell of a trip.
Ciarán McMenamin’s debut novel follows Vinny, who after an evening that involves stopping a beating outside a chip shop, escaping the police, and being wedged into the back of a Ford Fiesta with two friendly thugs who will eventually give him a proposition. Offered the chance to sell 300 ecstasy tablets at an upcoming rave, Vinny’s future prospects are looking a little different. He badly wants out of his daily grind – currently taken up largely by chopping ribs and chickens in a local Chinese restaurant and smoking joints with his coworkers. Seeing this new opportunity as a way to escape to what he sees as a better life in Belfast, Vinny is drawn into a strange journey involving raves in caves, bizarre meditations during a fishing trip, a bag of ecstasy tablets, awkward romantic ventures, and some genuinely touching moments of reconciliation. All of this plays out against the backdrop of Northern Ireland in the early 1990s – The Troubles are ongoing, and moments of horrific violence can emerge from seemingly anywhere. Small grievances can end up being settled in the most catastrophic of ways, only further perpetuating the devastation.
McMenamin’s prose has a noticeably cinematic and stage-friendly quality to it, no doubt drawn from his background as an actor – Vinny’s frequent asides to the reader about his ongoing situation, or his observations about his friends, are carefully crafted little soliloquies which often had me laughing out loud (I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if a media adaptation wasn’t considered for this eventually). A central element of the setting did have me concerned initially however. Whenever any story comes out that draws on aspects of culture from the very late 1980s/early 1990s, I always find myself a bit worried that it’ll simply devolve into nostalgia worship and clusters of references (I’m looking at you Ready Player One). Fortunately McMenamin avoids these pitfalls entirely. His love for the influence of the Mancunian music scene, and acid house in particular, are expertly interwoven into the background of the narrative without dominating it. The focus is always kept on Vinny’s predicament, and so these little touches give the prose a fantastic texture, rather than potentially overpowering it.
Ultimately the novel feels like it’s been a deeply personal journey for McMenamin, and there’s something very raw and honest in his writing. It is most definitely a trip worth taking.
[UPDATE 09/04/2017] With thanks to Aine for catching my typo – the book is primarily set in 1994, with some flashbacks to the 1980s. The review had been edited accordingly.