American Skin by Ken Bruen

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American Skin by Ken Bruen

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Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Becky Hazlett
Reviewed by Becky Hazlett
Summary: Quite simply, this novel stands out! It's exciting, thoughtful, sad, funny and structurally impressive. I recommend it as possibly the best thing to read on a long journey as it's totally absorbing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Brandon / Mount Eagle Publications Ltd
ISBN: 978-0863223990

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I knew I had picked a winner the moment I started to read American Skin. Open the book and you'll find yourself straight in the middle of a high speed car chase, switching between the viewpoints of a family fleeing for their lives and the maniac in pursuit, and this pace continues for the rest of the novel.

As the title might suggest, American Skin is all about identity. The novel is set in America and Ireland and examines the contrast between the two cultures. The main character is an Irishman called Stephen Blake who, we learn, has escaped to the USA after a bank heist that didn't go entirely to plan and resulted in the death of his best friend, Tommy. Stephen attempts to pass himself off as an American while he waits for his girlfriend, Siobhan, to join him. Blake is typically Irish: tough and reserved and has a little trouble adjusting to the somewhat over friendly attitude of the Americans at first. He seems to be instinctively drawn to the underworld, hooking up with a former associate of dubious character, Juan.

American Skin is very violent and gory and boasts at least four homicidal psychopaths, a ridiculous number for one book but somehow it seems natural that such people become intertwined, and each one of them is distinct even if they do come close to being caricatures. Most significant is Dade, the monster stalking this book, and the redneck embodiment of pure evil. It seems only a matter of time before his and Stephen's paths cross.

The episodes set in America have a slightly unreal edge in contrast with the bleak and grim realism of Ireland and the tough life there, and the rain. But, through Bruen's descriptions, Ireland sounds just as exotic as America. The insights into the Irish culture and wisdom are fascinating and, for me, the best part of the novel. They have poetry and a beauty but also a sadness. There is a sense of impending doom and a certain sense of fatalism runs throughout the book. Stephen seems to relinquish his restraint and control when he gets to America. There is even a drug-fuelled sojourn in Las Vegas a la Hunter S Thompson.

Stephen's not exactly a sympathetic or likeable character, or at least he shouldn't be, but you can't help but warm to him. Maybe it's the Irish charm, but he seems human and his actions, understandable. He shows a genuine grief over Tommy's death and heartfelt affection for Siobhan. He is also quite funny in a sardonic way and liberal with his swearing.

Part of what makes this novel so compelling is the structure. You get caught up in the momentum, almost as if it is designed to be read all in one go; there are no convenient places to pause, or rather there are but you'd rather not! The novel constantly changes perspective, place and time so the reader gradually builds up a picture of what exactly happened leading up to, during, and after the bank heist. Somehow, it never becomes confusing or convoluted. Perhaps it's the Irish intonation (I can actually hear the accent) but Bruen has a way of writing that I don't think I have seen before and that's really saying something; he dispenses with unnecessary words and yet his sentences convey so much detail and mood. It's a fairly short novel but it doesn't feel like it. The narrative is fast-paced, edgy and full of references to popular culture and song lyrics. I am sure it is only a matter of time before it becomes a film.

One word of warning; the ending will leave you wanting more.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If, like me, you enjoyed the parts of the novel set in Ireland and wanted to concentrate on that, you might like Christine Falls by Benjamin Black - another compelling crime novel, set in Dublin in the 1950s. You might also enjoy Dark Times In The City by Gene Kerrigan or Border Angels by Anthony J Quinn.

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Buy American Skin by Ken Bruen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy American Skin by Ken Bruen at


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