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Ever since I read Trainspotting when I was a teenager I've always loved Irvine Welsh's work, and this was no different. I should start by saying that if you're not familiar with Welsh's writing, then you might want to do a bit of research before you buy. Firstly, it's written in a Scots dialect, which for the non-native can be incredibly difficult to decipher, even for native speakers of English from other countries like the States or Australia. A lot of slang is used and spelling is changed to reflect the intonation of the Scottish accent. Furthermore, the subject matter is not for everyone; it focuses largely on the recreational taking of hard drugs and the effect that this has on the protagonist's lives. There is black humour underneath all that Welsh writes, but at times the subject material is harrowing and painful and not for the faint-hearted.
Having got that disclaimer out of the way, I would say that if you are still interested, or if you are a proven fan of his work, then this a no-brainer. Buy it now! The story details the lives of the four main protagonists of Trainspotting (Mark Renton, Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson, Danny "Spud" Murphy and Francis Begbie) in the 80s as they are growing up and gives a bit of background on the boy's degeneration into heroin addiction (and in Begbie's case, heavy violence). It does a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere of despair and hardship due to the unemployment of the time and will evoke memories in those alive then with its cultural references to music and film.
The narrative style of the book is the same as the other two novels by Welsh; each chapter is told from a different character's perspective, and as such the language and style of writing is adjusted according to their personality. This is a great technique which really lets you feel like you are getting inside the head of the characters, and as well as elaborating on the adolescence of these four, also develops a few of the fringe characters from the other books like Tommy, Rab ("Second Prize"), Seeker, Nicky and Matty, and even introduces completely new ones which develop the other characters in light of their histories.
The Begbie chapters are probably a personal favourite; despite being a complete psychopath and utterly unsympathetic character, I actually found myself fascinated by a macabre magnetism to the character and even going so far as taking a sick pleasure in rooting for him when he confronted the Frenchard brothers. Also powerful were the chapters in rehab, where the narrative takes a diary form and reveals Mark's descent into drug use and his own guilt about past transgressions (I'll say no more for the sake of spoilers).
For anyone familiar with the Trainspotting series, Skagboys is a worthy addition, although in my opinion unfortunately titled. A terrible name for a book, thankfully this is one of the only things I have to say bad about it. Highly recommend.
This is a review of the 2012 book "Skagboys" by Irvine Welsh. Did you ever wonder how the boys in Trainspotting got to be like they were when most of them were only in their twenties? Skagboys is set in the 1980s and is the prequel to Trainspotting and takes us back to Leith, a Scottish town where they all live and it explores their first experiences in taking heroin intravenously.
I was really keen to read this book as I have read all the other books, plays and short stories by Welsh, I'd say it's one of my guilty pleasures. I saw Trainspotting several times at the cinema and loved that film in a horrified way. I had the book on Amazon pre order and when it arrived I cheered and immediately started reading it. What surprised me was the amount of times I had to pick up and put down the book. Normally I just read them in one or two sittings but with this one I was reading other books at the same time so it took me around a week. Part of that was because at 550 pages and a hardback book it was quite heavy to hold and I also banned myself from reading it in the bath as I didn't want it to get water damaged as I keep all my Irvine welsh books as I like to re-read them. Also, some of the content was quite harsh (as expected) so I had to be in the right mood to read them.
I would start up front by saying these books are not for the faint hearted and probably won't be to everyone's taste. For starters, the books are mainly written in Scottish dialect so you have to get your head around that. It gets easier as you get into the book. Secondly, the book covers a lot of violent, sexual and drug abuse content and this is not pleasant content.
Characters - the old gang
Each chapter is voiced by one of the characters, mainly Mark Renton in either a narrative or diary style. The diary pages cover his time in rehab where he is going through the motions to avoid a prison sentence and to reduce the amount of his habit when he gets back outside. The characters are easy to recognise in their style. Spud talks of people being 'cats' and is the slightly pathetic but loveable character that people feel a bit sorry for. He is also extremely addicted to heroin. Next up is Simon 'Sick Boy' who uses his Italian blood to charm a lot of ladies, bordering on being a pimp at times to get money together to fund his own habit. He refuses to work a regular job saying that's for mugs and if he gets a girl pregnant, he does a runner rather than face the music. Francis Begbie is a violent, scary and bullying character to his friends and girlfriends and spends part of the book in prison to the relief of the boys. Other characters are more likable, like Tommy who keeps clear of the hard drugs and tries to help the other boys in their rehab and recovery. The drug dealers are also included in the book so you get a real insight into the life of Seeker who is quite mysterious in the Trainspotting book.
A bit on the side
A side plot to the main story is the chemical plant in the town which is actually refining the drug heroin into a prescription version. There is corruption on the inside which is benefiting the boys' access to the pure white heroin they crave. When they move to London for a while they are disgusted with the quality of the imported 'brown' they can only get hold of there.
Whilst I don't condone drug taking, it is really interesting to hear the voices inside the characters who are so desperate in their own humdrum lives that they resort to and depend on injecting heroin. The decade is 1980 and unemployment is very high making it hard for the under educated to find a job. Their motivation to find a job is low too and the giro is the highlight of the week.
Their time on the rehab unit is also a great insight into the NHS funded opportunities that are given to people who want to detox. A 45 day stint where their days are planned out into individual and group therapy, journal writing and group discussions are all covered by Renton's diary and extremely funny to read.
I loved the chapters where Renton and Sick Boy get a job working on the ferries. It starts off as a plan to import (smuggle) and sell drugs from Amsterdam but the boys quickly realise that they are in too much over their own heads and it's not worth the risk of a heavy prison sentence so they use the ferry as their own party boat and keep themselves topped up with drugs in between shifts. The boys both work hard to avoid working on the boat and it is funny how they sneak off to their cabin all the time to get out of any hard graft.
This is not a book that everyone will enjoy reading but it is certainly something a bit different and one that I will return to in a few years' time. The drug taking was not glamorised and actually it spelled out how desperate the withdrawal felt and how unhappy most of the characters were most of the time. I will re-read Trainspotting again though to match up the characters I had forgotten about that are mentioned in Skagboys. There is plenty of humour in the book and some of the events are covered from different points of view by the different characters. I think Irvine Welsh did well to get really under the skin of the boys and revisit their characters to develop their earlier lives and give us some clues as to how it all got so bad at the point of Trainspotting (the 1990s). For me there was nothing I felt didn't work in the book and I loved that it went on for 500+ pages, any less and I think I'd have felt a bit cheated. I can really see how this would transfer easily in to a film but don't know whether this would happen or not.