Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
“I don’t believe there’s one true path. There’s endless paths stretching out to infinity. You just have to choose one and walk down it and see where it leads. We’re all stumbling in the dark, but how we stumble is our choice, nobody else’s.”
So says Alex, a small-time drug dealer, in Máire T. Robinson’s debut novel Skin Paper Stone. Set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, after the economic crash, the story revolves around a group of 20-somethings trying to find their rightful place in the world.
Stevie, an ancient history graduate, has decided to return to university to pursue her PhD after spending many years as an office temp. She’s broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Donal, and moved from Dublin to Galway, where she hopes to put the shadows of the past — including a teenage brush with anorexia and ongoing body image problems — behind her.
Here she meets easy-going Joe Kavanagh — known as Kav — who works as a lowly paid kitchen hand in a tacky tourist restaurant and sells weed on the side. He’s given up his artistic ambitions, but has dreams of moving to Thailand and becoming a tattoo artist, yet spends all his money on dope and booze.
Predictably, the pair develop a romantic relationship, but Skin Paper Stone is far from being a romance: it’s about well educated but directionless people trying to find a way forward when there’s no jobs, no money and, seemingly, no hope for a better future — unless you emigrate to the New World.
A lost generation
This might make the book sound depressing, but it’s not. The story looks at the underbelly of Galway’s “lost generation” — young people who are “damaged” and have lost their way — post-boom, but none of them have given up. While they’re struggling to keep their heads above water on a day-to-day basis, they all have (limited) aspirations: Stevie to complete her PhD on sheela-na-gigs — figurative carvings of naked women displaying oversized genatalia that adorn many churches — and Kav to set up a tattoo parlour abroad. Even the city’s two rival drug dealers, Alex and Pajo, want to be top dog, even if they have to achieve it through violence and intimidation.
The narrative is underpinned by a constant refrain, that of the need to escape: Kav longs to escape his older brother’s disdain, Stevie her parents’ over-protectiveness. Even Jacqui Maloney, a local girl who’s worked on a shop floor for years and been passed over for promotion one too many times, wants to settle down and get married — albeit with the thuggish, sexually deviant Pajo.
It helps that Robinson writes with warmth and understanding. She treats her characters — all well drawn and authentic — with kindness and empathy. These are not bad people; they’re simply caught by circumstance and trapped by their own inability to see a way forward. It’s only when Stevie and Kav are thrown together that their perspectives on life — and love — change, seemingly for the better.
Robinson also writes about Galway — its tacky tourist shops, its pubs, the river that winds through it and the people who inhabit it — so evocatively that the city feels like a character in its own right.
Gently nuanced read
Skin Paper Stone is a gently nuanced book that refrains from casting judgement on any of the people that inhabit its pages. Perhaps the ending comes together too quickly — Stevie’s decision to “escape” is slightly rushed and, in my mind, inexplicable, and the “problem” of Pajo is resolved too easily — yet this is an enormously enjoyable story that rings true.
Finally, I must issue a slight word of caution — as much as it pains me to say this, because I don’t want it to put people off buying this book — I found some of the copy-editing sloppy. In one case an entire sentence was repeated, Brussels sprout was spelled incorrectly, a reference to Murder, She Wrote had the comma in the wrong place, and there were several speech marks missing. Hopefully a second print run may iron out these problems…
In the meantime, I very much look forward to seeing what Robinson writes next…