Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

Review published on January 3, 2018.

Vinny Duffy and his best friend Jonty are two Catholic lads in a dead-end town in Northern Ireland. It’s the early 90s and they’re drop outs, earning their money washing up for the local Chinese takeaway, just looking for their next joint and pint. Being Northern Ireland, however, Sectarianism is never far away, and alongside the usual trials and tribulations faced by feckless youth everywhere, Vinny and Jonty also have to avoid a beating or worse from Loyalist gangs, especially during the marching season. When Vinny gets in a car with two Loyalist thugs, he fears the worst, until that is they crash into a field. Miraculously, they escape unscathed, and a bond of sorts is built between them. When the two Loyalists steal a batch of ecstasy from Loyalist paramilitaries – another unique feature of the province we learn, while the drug trade everywhere is controlled by gangsters, in Northern Ireland it’s controlled by the terrorist gunmen – who better than Vinny and Jonty to sell it for them?

Skintown is basically a coming of age novel. We follow Vinny as he travels from Indy kid supping pints and sneering at Acid House, to fully fledged raver. Along the way he finds true love, takes copious amounts of drugs, makes new friends across the sectarian divide and deals with the local bully who has it in for him. As someone who grew up in the 90s and who experienced the rave scene, in many ways this was a nostalgic read for me. There were many situations that Vinny found himself in to which I could relate. But you don’t have to have been submerged in Acid House to enjoy this book, the themes it touches upon are much wider than that.

One of the great aspects of this novel is how the author brings to life what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland in the 90s. To those who grew up in the mainland, the depiction of the province is both familiar and alien: They listen to the same music, drink the same beer, have the same hobbies, but sectarian prejudice is around every corner, riots occur regularly and the British Army back up the police when things get out of hand. Horrific and life-changing violence can occur at a moments notice, most frighteningly on the occasions when one group or another sets off a massive bomb. While IRA bombings occurred on the mainland, they were so much more common in Northern Ireland.

This novel is set just before the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and once again, while this news was greeted with relief throughout the UK, in Northern Ireland it meant so much more. The author depicts this well; Vinny, Jonty and the other characters are warily pleased by the news but distrustful that the long conflict that has blighted their lives can really be at an end. Vinny in particular dreams of escaping the rural backwater he’s in, has set his sights on the bright lights of Belfast, where perhaps he can find his future. The characters in Skintown are all well drawn, but none more so than Vinny, an intelligent but rootless young man who dropped out of school and has no qualifications, but who wants more from life than just claiming the dole.

This is a laugh out loud read, there are parts which are sidesplittingly funny. For those who grew up at the time and were involved in the rave scene it will certainly bring back emotional memories. But it’s also poignant and touching. This is a bitter sweet book that also has moments of real melancholy. Ciaran McMenamin is a writer of real talent and if Skintown is anything to go by he has a bright future as a novelist.

James Pierson 5/5

Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin
Doubleday 9780857524850 pbk Apr 2017


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