I’m strolling around Balbriggan with Kevin Curran on a warm, bright Friday afternoon. The beach is quiet. An older couple kick a football around with a toddler, and near them, a little girl in a sun hat digs in the sand, concentrating hard, never looking up from her bucket and spade. A metallic tack-tack sound from boats moored in the harbour whips on the breeze. Three lads in school uniform are sitting on a bench facing out to sea. “Alright, Sir,” they chorus when they spot Curran. It’s the third time in five minutes this has happened. “Is it odd to be called Sir everywhere you go?” I ask. “There’s far worse things you could be called!” he laughs.
Balbriggan is the youngest and one of the most culturally diverse large towns in Ireland. It’s rapidly expanding, and the town centre is busy, yet entire swathes of Main Street await redevelopment, and the boarded-up buildings are downcast, dejected-looking. Curran believes Balbriggan is on the cusp of amazing change. In his new novel Youth, the town is more than just a setting; it’s one of the forces shaping the lives of the novel’s four protagonists, Princess (17), Angel (18), Dean (17) and Tanya (16).
Together, we walk the world of the book, but if I didn’t have him as a guide, I could use Youth to navigate the town’s topography. He points out Balbriggan Community College, the school he attended himself as a teenager, where he has been teaching English for more than a decade. Passing the library makes me think of Nigerian Irish schoolgirl Princess, forever struggling to find a quiet place to study.
On Drogheda Street, I recognise the FLC takeaway, one of the few locations where the novel’s adults and teenagers interact, a place that fulfils some of the functions of home, albeit transactional. Curran and I wait at a pedestrian light on Main Street, where, late in the novel, Princess, Angel, Dean and Tanya stand on a Saturday morning in May under a cloud-free blue sky. While editing the book, Curran came here to check he had correctly described the exact shape of the button.
Curran is so alert to the enormous power social media exerts over teenagers’ lives: ‘I see it all the time now with students and kids, especially girls. They think the phone is a comfort pillow, but it’s smothering them’
Such attention to detail explains why the Balbriggan of Youth feels so real. There are plenty of good reasons to invent locations in fiction – not only does it prevent eagle eyed readers taking the author to task about inaccuracies, but real areas can’t bend and flex to serve a plot – but Curran didn’t want to. “When I was growing up, I’d love to have read a book set in Balbriggan,” he says. He views his hometown as “the future of Ireland, now… it’s not without its problems, but it’s getting on with things, and people are working together.”
An atmospheric, immersive novel, Youth is more than painstakingly faithful to its location – it’s faithful to the real-life experiences represented by its characters. The four teenagers each narrate their own chapters, layer by layer cleverly revealing the complex relationships they have with each other and their town. The obvious comparison is with Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown novels, yet the style of Youth reminded me more of reading Irvine Welsh for the first time 30 years ago, and giving myself up to its language and rhythms, ready to go wherever it was taking me. More teenspotting than Trainspotting, Youth’s multi-narrative style lends itself perfectly to the audiobook, voiced by Gabriel Adewusi, Jordanne Jones, Florence Adebambo, Conall Keating and Kate Gilmore.
Youth opens with cocky extrovert Angel, “his wide, cat-like eyes forever scanning for trouble”. Angel wants to make his fortune from music, but his goals are set by his friends, so his prospects are totally influenced by the people he hangs around with. Prof Mary Gilmartin said on RTÉ's Morning Ireland recently that a general trend observed in all countries accepting migrants is that the second generation has an easier route to becoming part of society than the first. Easier maybe, but still not straightforward.
Curran says: “I wanted to show Angel and Princess literally having to deal with this new experience of being second generation. They are the first to walk the streets as Balbriggan people. They are from Balbriggan, it just so happens that the parents might be from Nigeria, the Congo, but they are dealing with this process on their own, so they have to find their own path.”
Princess is weary of the struggle to find a small space for herself in the world. There is no peace in the tiny apartment she shares with her mother, sister Becky and Becky’s baby. There is no peace in the library. She wants to study, and get a good Leaving Cert, and, if she can make her way via the Higher Education Access Route (“It’s for people like me, from backgrounds like mine”), become a pharmacist.
Princess always has two big luminous highlighters on hand to take notes. Yellow is for general observations, including, “Nothing in this world comes easy, without a fight”, and pink for specific life-advancement threats, such as, “Other people will let you down.” She’s trying to hold fast to her dream, but it’s hard. She knows what she doesn’t want: to be like her sister. Ambition is singular for Princess, whereas other people’s feelings are plural, and both can’t work alongside each other.
Dean, who Curran describes as the hardest character to write, wants to emerge from under his famous boxer father’s shadow, but has no idea what that means, or how he might go about it. “The internet has ruined him, porn has ruined him,” Curran explains. The scene where Dean and a friend talk about hooking up with girls, and their warped, aggressive assumptions about sex, I found horrifying. Curran agrees: “The expectations on 14-year-old girls, 15-year-old girls, is insane.”
‘If I wrote Caoimhe, a 17-year-old from Dalkey, no one would bat an eyelid. But I have never met a 17-year-old Caoimhe from Dalkey in my life... Princess, I’ve known for 12 years. I meet 20 Princesses a year in school’
And finally, Tanya, the heart and hero of Youth, who originally featured in Curran’s short story Saving Tanya, published in New Island’s Young Irelanders anthology in 2015. Tanya has found internet infamy, or, as she thinks of it, “a sex tape never hurt no one”. Tanya feels no shame for what she has done. Far from it; she owns her actions, and is fine with the newfound notoriety among her peer group. What makes her situation different is that her clip found its way on to what she calls “old people media” – the local Facebook page.
She thinks, “The problem with fame in this town is everyone thinks they know you. Wants a piece of you. Everyone wants to tell me I’m either beautiful or disgusting. That I’m the worst thing to happen to Balbriggan or the best thing.” Curran is so alert to the enormous power social media exerts over teenagers’ lives: “I see it all the time now with students and kids, especially girls. They think the phone is a comfort pillow, but it’s smothering them.” Tanya’s chapters include her social media posts, and the true vulnerability of her character is exposed in the gulf between her always-on, always-upbeat online life and the reality of her existence.
Weaving around all four teenagers is charismatic rapper Pelumi, whose opaque presence is like that of social media itself; he’s smart, unpredictable and manipulative, and none of his teenage crew realise how intrinsically self-interested a ruler he is. In Pelumi’s company, Angel finds himself “striding into encounters [he] would rather dodge”; Princess is thrilled when he acknowledges her, which she follows up immediately with a pink highlighter moment: “Beware the insidious thrill of a cheap ego boost.”
Curran describes Pelumi as “the new king of Irish drill”. (For those of us over 20, drill, a subgenre of hip hop with explicit and violent lyrics, is huge in Ireland. On Spotify, Drogheda-based drill collective A92 has over 700,000 monthly listeners and AV9, a group which includes former pupils of Curran’s, has over 233,000.)
The point of storytelling is to imagine outside our own lived experience, and empathise with people who are not us. Curran’s own shadow doesn’t fall across his fiction; rather he is honestly trying to capture a reality that isn’t being written about anywhere else. “If I wrote Caoimhe, a 17-year-old from Dalkey, no one would bat an eyelid. But I have never met a 17-year-old Caoimhe from Dalkey in my life. I genuinely wouldn’t know where to start. Princess, I’ve known for 12 years. I meet 20 Princesses a year in school.”
His fifth- and sixth-year classes are at least 50 per cent first generation immigrants, and he estimates 40 per cent of the class is black Irish. He imagines telling his class that he had written a novel about four white kids living in Balbriggan, “while literally 50 per cent of the people sitting in front of me are not white. Why would I leave them out?” When he sense-checked the character of Princess with five 17-year-old African girls, the only inauthenticity they found was that she didn’t have enough chores to do at home.
I opened Youth concerned that it would act as an accelerant on my fears. Because I’m frightened, all the time. Any day’s news headlines make me fearful. The relentless destruction of the planet makes me fearful. Yet what really terrifies me is far closer to home. At home, in fact. I worry endlessly about my teenagers. Not necessarily about them being out in the world, because they have to do that, it is where life happens, but I am always worried for them.
What is it to be that age today? Is it possible to still have a hidden, watchful heart, one that feeds imagination? Where is the glorious, mindless freedom to negotiate the possibilities and vulnerabilities of being young without getting called out for it? Reading Youth filled me with relief. It is an exceptional novel, joyous and hopeful. For all the divisive, anxiety-plagued reality of social media saturation, Youth champions solidarity and compassion.
I explain this fear, and the unexpected, giddy reassurance Youth provided, to Curran. “You cannot teach where I teach, and deal with what I deal with daily, and be in my classroom and not feel uplifted, or have hope for the future,” he replies. “The kids are all right,” he says. “They really are.”
Youth is published by Lilliput Press on June 8th.