Much has been made of the importance of Ianto as the first memorable Welsh anti-hero, and yet for me it's the supporting characters who reek of authenticity and make this book unforgettable. I once knew a lad who hailed from Caernarvon, and reading this it was almost like meeting him again - the same combination of hedonistic recklessness and morose cynicism. I can well believe that in every small town in the West of Wales, there's a group of friends who would read Sheepshagger and recognise themselves within minutes.
Ianto's toking- and tripping-buddies perceive him as a semi-mute, antisocial moron, and yet their lifestyles aren't so very different, dominated as they are by thrill-seeking, violence and self-degradation. In one of the three intercut narratives, Ianto's erstwhile mates are huddled in a room together perhaps a year or so after the events of the story, trying to fathom out what turned him into a multiple killer. The irony is, it never occurs to them to ask, "How did WE turn out to be such a bunch of losers?" Lack of opportunity can't explain it - Llyr is a property owner and Marc, we learn, comes from a middle-class family. Perhaps the answer is that they are trapped in, and protected by, a self-referential set of social norms of their own - as long as their conduct is "normal" by their own standards, they never feel the need to justify it.
Many people will be put off by the extremity of the violence and human depravity, which although not glamourised, does at times go beyond what's strictly necessary plot-wise. My main criticism would however be the unjustified sexual abuse element, which is hinted at repeatedly throughout but only made explicit in a harrowing childhood flashback scene near the end. This strikes me as a gratuitous and tacked-on element in the story, and if it's a metaphor for the "violation" of Wales by the Saxon, then it's an exceptionally crass and ill-judged one.
This aside, the novel is bleak but not hopeless. It may not offer much hope of creating a better world, but one is left with the feeling that the world would be a better place if more people were like Niall Griffiths.