Monday, 31 December 2007

Neil Bartlett - Skin Lane

It’s hard to write to much about this book without giving away it's secrets, and I'm going to do that even though it’s one of those rare novels where I really feel I shouldn’t. So, you've been warned!

Skin Lane is set in 1967, the year in which homosexual acts between consenting adults, as the terminology goes, were decriminalised. Mr F, (the F stands for Freeman) lives a life that is the opposite of his name, and is surprisingly innocent and middle aged when he experiences desire for the first time (the imagery that captures this – a series of dreams that are literally an awakening– is a stroke of macabre brilliance that makes me rethink doubts I’ve had about the potential of dreams in fiction). A furrier, surrounded with the blades and the blood that are the accoutrements of his trade, Mr F becomes obsessed with the sixteen-year old nephew of his employer. For most of its progress, the novel seems to be treading a path of sexual obsession and violence and approaching horror with which readers of novels by Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell might be familiar – and to be praiseworthy chiefly for doing it so well.
Then, in a moment of startling grace Mr F and his potential victim are spared what seemed inevitable. The slow build up of tension, and then the withdrawal from absolute violence and horror in a way that is both believable and not anticlimactic is brilliantly handled. It’s not until the ending that the motif of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast is finally explained - Mr F identifies both as Beauty and as Beast, and Beast is just a label, beneath that lies the wasted potential of someone who has not learned to express his desires, yearning somehow to break free. And of course, there is a climax, here Bartlett borrows the gothic convention of the fire that explains why the building at 4 Skinner Lane is now a copy of the original.

There are other aspects of this novel that are quite brilliant. The way that London comes to life as a place that changes and grows almost like another character, for instance. And the way you realise that in Bartlett’s world, the real horror is the unlived life. Bartlett has been shortlisted for the Costa for this (as he was shortlisted in its previous incarnation as the Whitbread, the year Beryl Bainbridge won for Every Man for Himself) and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he pulls it off.

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