Tuesday 27 September 2016

Vibrant debut novel is a gimlet-eyed gem

Tanya Sweeney

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Debutante: Maire T Robinson's tome is set in Galway
Debutante: Maire T Robinson's tome is set in Galway
Skin, Paper, Stone by Maire T Robinson

Irish writers have long been known for their command of the florid, the lyrical and the curlicued. Yet, they also have another power: the ability to make a seemingly simple, economic sentence hum with vigour, observation and poetry. Where Roddy Doyle blazed a trail, countless others have followed. Máire T Robinson is the latest debutante on the trail, though rest assured, this is far from careworn territory.

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Much like Lisa McInerney did when she set The Glorious Heresies in Cork City, Robinson has sidestepped the capital and deployed Galway as her milieu. Her Galway can sometimes feel as binding and claustrophobic as any small village. Still, this is a Galway - with its pubs, its tourist traps and its likeable bowsie stoners - that crackles with real, authentic energy.

And so we meet Stevie, a mature student who has moved to the City of Tribes to pursue a medieval history PhD. There's a gulf of difference between newly single Stevie and her married, settled friends; her anxiety ratchets up a notch, for instance, when she is handed a newborn that starts to wail at an inhuman pitch. She makes the right sounds and says the right things, but we know right away that this stab at politesse belies an internal chaos.

Joe Kavanagh is an art graduate with other things on his mind, waiting as he is for creative inspiration to strike. Meantime, he is learning the ropes as a tattoo artist and dreaming of escape to Asia. As tropes go, the frustrated artist is nothing new, but there's something still compelling in Kavanagh's mindset. Both, we soon realise, are marooned and rudderless in their own way.

Pinging back and forth between the two (each, impressively, with their own distinct voices), the story starts to unfold as the two collide at a party. It's a love story with the least propitious of beginnings: Kavanagh smashes a wine bottle to win her attention, landing himself in A&E in the process. Their lives fuse together, but in two very different relationships.

Their respective struggles, not to mention those of a raggle taggle of vibrant supporting characters, are nicely undercut by a generous soupcon of onyx-black humour. Occasionally, one of these types - the drug-dealing Pajo, for instance - veers perilously towards cliché, but Robinson's pages are so teeming with truth, feeling and familiarity that it's easy enough to forgive.

There has been such a fierce and exciting steeplechase of new writers attempting to flesh out post-boom Ireland that for a new writer, it might be all too easy to get lost in the skirmish.

But Robinson is easily holding her own here, and New Island have once again picked up true potential by the ankles.

This is a gimlet-eyed gem of a debut, bringing to mind the vibrancy, bravado and occasional poignancy of Joseph O'Connor's debut Cowboys & Indians. Unlike those of some of Robinson's characters, this is a career off to the most auspicious and confident of starts.

Fiction

Skin, Paper, Stone

Máire T Robinson

New Island, pbk, 224 pages

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie

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