Gerard Brennan's acclaimed novella Wee Rockets was a pulsating slice of Belfast grit, following the lives of a gang of teenagers who spent their time harassing old folks and getting wrecked in parks on cider and weed, a story which hummed with street smart credibility. The recently released Wee Danny is a sequel of sorts and sees one of the main characters, Danny Gibson, now locked up in a young offenders institution.
Danny has worked out how to make it through his stretch and his eyes are fixed firmly on his upcoming release. He knows to keep his head down, avoid trouble and play the reformed character. Maybe he is being rehabilitated, he's certainly behaving better than he did on the outside - making nice with his psychologist and teachers, side stepping the macho crap of his fellow inmates, or at least making sure he looks like the innocent party when the fists start flying.
Then Danny is befriended by Conan Quinlan - The Barbarian, naturally - a gentle giant with learning difficulties who prompts an uncharacteristic protectiveness in Danny. Conan is a big target, physically capable of taking care of himself but lacking in Danny's feral guile. They're an odd double act but their friendship is the kind that develops in harsh situations, sparked at random and tentative to begin with. Danny is initially wary of Conan, not sure if he's a threat or a friend, confused by his strange behaviour and intimidated by his bulk, but he feels protective towards him and when the opportunity to spend some time outside on a work placement arises he talks the prison psychologist into letting Conan out too. A move which will lead to his rehabilitation being tested.
Wee Danny is a much gentler book than Wee Rockets, there's violence but because of the setting it is contained and brief, more a battle of wills than all out warfare, and Brennan does an excellent job of teasing out the small slights and power games which define the hierarchy within a young offenders institution. At the heart of this slim but perfectly formed novella is the relationship between Danny and Conan, and through it we see the tearaway of Wee Rockets in new light, capable of decency and kindness. Maybe he'll be fully reformed in a future book, or maybe it's only his environment which allows him to show this new side to his character, hopefully we'll find out at some point.
Gerard Brennan has always been a writer with a great flair for character and this has come to the fore in Wee Danny, a large hearted character piece which, despite the subject matter, is actually really touching.