IT HAS been said elsewhere, but bears repeating, that Galway city is probably the most important character in Máire T Robinson’s debut novel Skin Paper Stone, published by New Island.
Robinson’s contemporary Galway is as intricately drawn as Saul Bellow’s Chicago, Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh, or Zadie Smith’s North West London: “Joe Kavanagh turned into Buttermilk Lane. A busker’s tune floated up and reverberated off the high buildings, bouncing back to his ears, plaintive and sweet. Even though it was just some cheesy guy with a tin whistle…” They are all here, in Robinson’s all too real Galway: the buskers, beggars, and “degenerates of every persuasion”.
What is most admirable about Robinson’s writing is how she manages to avoid falling into either sensationalism or sentimentality. She takes a hard look at the much romanticised life of the city’s rootless, semi-lumpen, bohemians; the sort who breeze into town loudly declaring their vast artistic ambitions and then breeze back out a few years later - having perhaps once been an extra in a Macnas parade - to spend the rest of their existence teaching English as a foreign language somewhere no one has ever been. Despite the occasional mercilessness of her glare, Robinson at all times resists the temptation to pretend to be Salthill’s answer to Brett Easton Ellis.
Skin Paper Stone's centres on the relationship between Stevie, who has moved to Galway to do a PhD in History, and Joe Kavanagh, a disappointed artist who makes a living selling wacky backy. Robinson is good at depicting alienation at its most extreme. Most of Stevie’s female acquaintances are in a desperate rush to give birth, something Stevie has profoundly mixed feelings about: “The baby’s cry was an accusation. Moments before, he was resting placidly in his mothers’ arms. Now, in Stevie’s clutches, he wailed at an inhuman pitch.”
Stevie is torn between the lives her peers are predictably settling down into and the search for something more authentic. All of which leads her into the arms of Kavanagh, the sort of individual who, had he been born a century earlier, would likely have been disposed of at the Battle of the Somme, and then we would at least have had the luxury of being able to pretend that, had he continued to use up oxygen, his life might have amounted to something. Instead, Kavanagh sells weed to guys who probably fully intended to vote number one for Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, but woke up too late, and talks about moving to Thailand.
Surprisingly enough, they do not all exactly live happily ever after. Kavanagh accidentally pushes a business associate, with whom he is having a pronounced difference of emphasis about a particular transaction, into the River Corrib. He then sees this as an opportune moment to follow his dream and re-locate to Phuket, Thailand, where he will, no doubt, continue his journey of self-discovery. The novel ends with Stevie leaving to apparently join him. And as the plane rises from Dublin “Curled up inside her, the tiny life soared too. Not one heartbeat, but two”. There will, we must hope, be a sequel.