Con O’Neill has lived all his life in Coatbridge, whose name is synonymous with deprivation, alcohol and substance abuse and gang violence. The scene is dramatically set from the first sentence; ‘It takes three people to hold up Biscuit’s mum.’ Little wonder, at her 18 year old son’s funeral. He was killed by a rival gang and Con and his friends will be expected to avenge his death, perpetuating the ceaseless and corrosive cycle of violence. Despair and tragedy are everywhere in the town and in Con’s life, too-his mother took her own life and his father has retreated into the world of competitive bodybuilding, with no time for his son. But Con has had enough of the grim cycle of retribution and the consequent deaths and longs to find a way out of the environment which has spawned these ills.
Conaghan creates a vivid picture of a community on the edge of a society which ignores or condemns them. The dialogue shocks with its habitual and vicious obscenities but it also rings with realism. His characters-Wee Z, Nails (the only girl) and Trig- are distinctive, erratic and often misled but also have talents and ambitions-for example, Nails is a highly talented black belt in taekwondo who longs to compete at national level. This is not a book for younger readers nor for the faint-hearted but it is one which needed to be written-and needs to be read. Coatbridge is far from unique; we see its like countrywide but when we view it through Con’s eyes there seems no mechanism for change. This is a Treacle Town-sucking its inhabitants in and holding them fast. Yet there is a community and there is loyalty to the area: ‘Dream town nightmare town. Both at the same time town.’
In his search for escape Con discovers a slam poetry group, no holds barred performance poetry, and realises this may be a way forward. As he listens online he feels for the first time that he may have something positive to offer the world. To attend the sessions live he has to miss what Trig has organised- the challenge of facing his friend’s killers and exacting rough justice, something he’s long been determined to avoid.
When Trig confronts Biscuit’s murders he goes with only Wee Z beside him-Con and Nails are at the Scottish conservatoire, Con to perform Biscuit’s poetry in honour of his memory and Nails to support. When Trig is killed and Wee Z is hospitalised after his hand has been severed Con and Nails are ‘throttled’ with guilt and when Con cries at Trig’s funeral ‘these tears aren’t Trig’s alone, they’re for them all: Mum, Biscuit, friendship, youth.’
Treacle Town is an absorbing and disturbing novel, a clarion call to those in power with the authority to effect change, to sow the seeds of hope and ensure that they germinate. Ears and eyes have been closed for far too long and Brian Conaghan reminds us that now is the time to look, listen and act in order to avoid the wasted lives which are everywhere in far too many of our communities.