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
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album