Jonathan Cape, £12.99, 458pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Skagboys, By Irvine Welsh

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards," notes Mark Renton, the emaciated, erudite, heroin junkie in Irvine Welsh's Skagboys. It should make good meta-fictive sense, given that this is Welsh's long-awaited prequel to Trainspotting. Yet there is a peculiar sense here that lives are being lived backwards, not forwards. Welsh's drug-addled crew – Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al – first emerged almost 20 years ago in Trainspotting. Their stories were followed up in the 2002 sequel, Porno. Now, the backward tug in Skagboys takes us to the beginning, before this Edinburgh fraternity of anti-heroes succumbed to heroin, or "skag".

Originally published in 1993, Trainspotting became a "vernacular spectacular" with its raw Scots dialect, funny scatology, scabrous humour and shocking subject matter. The drug subculture that had stained the outer suburbs of Edinburgh exploded into Welsh's narrative. The result resonated so deeply that we, like Welsh, didn't want to let the story go. A hit film was made. An iconic poster and soundtrack album followed. Renton's anti-bourgeois, junkie philosophy became a counter-culture manifesto for the nihilistic Nirvana generation. "Choose life" he sneered, recasting the supposedly well-adjusted as the dysfunctional majority: "Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye've produced. Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life."

We left Renton as he betrayed his mates and prepared to face a new future in Amsterdam. Now we return to him in the early 1980s, as he and his fellow "schemies" stand on the pre-heroin cusp of adulthood. It can't have been easy for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity.

Renton begins as a university student at Aberdeen, in love with his girlfriend, Fiona, who regards heroin as a loser's game. Seeing someone taking "skag" at a party early on in the book inspires contempt: "Stupid cunt, turning intae a fuckin zombie oan that shite when thaire's aw this fun tae be hud..." Then his disabled brother, Wee Davie, dies, and a curtain of mourning falls over his life. A familiar ensemble of characters including Sick Boy, Spud, Alison, Tommy and Begbie,create an orchestra of first-person accounts mixed with third-person narration. The strength of these chapters lies in the intensity of their stories.

Alison's mother dies of cancer after protacted years of illness; the teenager Maria gets hooked on heroin after her mother is imprisoned for benefits fraud. The stories are filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong, derailed by disease, death and poverty. The suffering drives them to their tipping point towards desperate pain-relief, and heroin.

The battle between Renton's growing love of the drug, and love for Fiona, is excellently played out. Their university passion unfolds tenderly, yet as Renton becomes drug-dependent, he senses she is losing the battle, and that he must split up with her as quickly and as clinically as possible to fully commit to a drug that will leave no room for anything, or anyone, else.

Until this moment, he has stood at an intersection between two lives: as a heroin junkie and as an ordinary young working-class man trying to make good. Her departure cuts him off from the latter, and we see a foreshadowing of the "choose life" monologue of Trainspotting as he rehearses his reasons for dumping her: "She's talked abut us finding a flat together next year. Then graduation, nine-to-five jobs and another flat wi a mortgage. Then engagement. Then marriage. A bigger mortgage on a house. Children. Expenditure. Then the four Ds: disenchantment, divorce, disease and death. For all her protestations to tae contrary, that's who she was."

Where his family life was a backdrop in Trainspotting, here it is rigorously, painfully, depicted, both before and after the fracturing grief of Wee Davie's death and his drug habit. In some respects, Renton appeared younger in Trainspotting, perhaps because Skagboys offers greater emotionally depth and insight.

While Renton's story provides a powerful emotional trajectory, several other characters show less development. They are characteristically themselves – Sick Boy is the promiscuous "sexual aristocrat" that he was in Trainspotting; Begbie is the "psycho"; Tommy is the good guy. But they become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension. The most frustrating emotional stasis is embodied in Sick Boy. We are given brief glimpses into his family life – his bullying father and meek mother – but his emotions are not explored in any depth, though he is given plenty of narrative space. We only know that the sex is as much of a drug for him as heroin, that he is alpha predator whose deeper feelings may be too well sealed-off from himself to be glimpsed by readers. Ironically, it is some of the more peripheral characters, such as Maria and her descent into addiction and forced prostitution, who offer the moving stories.

In Trainspotting, the ravaging effects of heroin on the libido were clear to see, but here, the drive to have sex and the drive to get high are still in brutal competition. The sex scenes are eye-wateringly graphic, and variously funny (Sick Boy's anal experience with a woman wearing a dildo) or shocking (Maria's rape at the hands of the man she holds guilty for her father's death, who has paid to sleep with her). and Welsh is extraordinarily adept at writing them.

In other ways, the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same. Some scenes bear too much familiarity: the toilet scene from Trainspotting in which Renton delves into an overflowing, stool-infested toilet to retrieve some tablets, is replicated, in spirit, in a scene in which a character delves into a rubbish dump to retrieve a puppy, finding himself covered in faecal smears in Skagboys. There are trips to London in both books (Skagboys's London vernacular has a hint of the Artful Dodger at times), and there are stints in rehab, although in this prequel, the rehab section is far richer and more satirical.

Trainspotting was written with the same third- and first-person variations, but the prequel shows greater experimentalism and ambition in its form. Renton's eloquent, emotional and intellectually angry diary excerpts from rehab are cleverly circular, appearing at the beginning (and recounting the bloody confrontation in the "Battle of Orgreave") and again towards the end.

Welsh frames personal fates and outcomes against short, page-long factual interludes that summarise the social reality of the era, citing unemployment figures, union tensions, draconian policing and rising HIV infection in this woebegone part of Scotland. This is a time when "hundreds of thousands of young, working-class people in the UK had a lot less money in their pockets and a lot more time on their hands," he writes. It is these passages, sometimes powerful, sometimes heavy-handed, that makes Skagboys a historical novel, a prequel, rather than the desperately contemporary novel that Trainspotting became.

The latter's success lay not just in its characterisation and drama but also in its timing. It captured an era that had barely passed with all its devastating fall-out. Skagboys lacks the political urgency of its predecessor, and its success lies simply in its absorbing, energetic writing. Welsh's descriptive style is masterful – crude, violent and poetic by turns – but it is dialogue for which he has the Midas touch. Skagboys, like Trainspotting, Ecstasy, The Acid House and the upcoming Filth, is a book that is perfect for the screen. Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page. A film, one suspects, isn't far off.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?