Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary review – good friends in hard times

In the follow-up to his Costa-shortlisted debut Montpelier Parade, Karl Geary returns once more to 1980s Dublin with a coming-of-age story about an unlikely relationship, set against a landscape of poverty, unrest and unbelonging. When misfit Juno, as handy with her fists as she is with her backchat, defends fellow outsider Legs against the school bullies, it spawns a fast friendship, giving both teenagers an escape from their troubled lives: Legs from his germophobic and homophobic mother, and Juno from a fractured family home where a working lightbulb travels from room to room, yet her da always finds money for the pub. “They were two mouths and I was their ear,” says Juno of her warring parents.

Juno Loves Legs is the story of that friendship, in its many incarnations, as seen through the eyes of Juno. As the teenagers move beyond the quiet cruelties of a Catholic education, and into an even darker and seemingly crueller world, against the odds their friendship endures. It has to. Severed from their families by mutual agreement, in a new life littered with sordid squats and deep prejudice, transient figures and seedy bars, they rely on each other to survive. The whip-smart exchanges, the bravado, the vulnerability, all are captured perfectly on the page. While squatting in a council flat, Juno watches Legs shuffle down to the little red phone box outside, wearing his dead gran’s pink housecoat and a silly hat, with a pocket full of 10p pieces, trying to sort out their next meal, the next chapter of their lives. This is friendship. This is love.

Like fellow Irish novelist Donal Ryan, Geary writes fractured outsiders not just with skill but with humility. This book does not fetishise poverty. In one of the most moving sections, Juno finds herself sleeping rough and begging for money on a Dublin street, after walking out of the family home and being turned away by her estranged sister. “I settled in and performed my magic trick, putting one upturned hand out and I was invisible,” she says.

But if the friendship between Juno and Legs is the beating heart of this novel, there is life and hope to be found in the walk-on characters, too: the security guy who turns a blind eye to Juno’s trespassing and offers her some ginger biscuits instead; the young lad working in a coffee shop who makes up the pennies for her drink. Geary finds beauty in the most unlikely places, and in an often brutal story, with more than its fair share of small tragedies, he offers balm along the way; a reminder that humanity is everywhere, if we take the time to look, and a clear demonstration that family is less about genetics and more about love. “I’m with Legs,” Juno says throughout the novel, “I’m with him,” until their friendship, and the story, arrive at a deeply moving conclusion that will shatter even the hardest heart.

There is always much talk in publishing of “the difficult second novel” – the immense pressure on a writer to exceed or even just equal the achievement of a big and successful debut. Geary need have no concerns on that matter. Juno Loves Legs, in all its painful beauty, is a more than worthy successor.

Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.