Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 320 pages; 2008.
Sometimes you pick up a book that takes you on such a wonderfully atmospheric journey that when you get to the end, the feeling stays with you like a dream. Everything else you read in its wake suffers by comparison. This is how I felt when I finished Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane.
I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.
It has a kind of fairy tale quality to it, both in the way in which it is told (by an omnipresent narrator in quiet, stripped back prose) and the subject matter (an older man falling for a younger colleague that he cannot have, with parallels to Beauty and the Beast).
It is also a wonderful portrait of London, in particular the area sandwiched between Cannon Street and the Thames, which is written so lovingly it feels like a tribute to the city. You can hear your feet echoing on the cobbled streets, feel the crush of bodies streaming over London Bridge every morning, see the spires of churches huddled together in the Square Mile.
And it’s a fascinating account of the fur trade, in all its grim glory.
The story itself is set in 1967, about the time when two key legislative acts were being passed by British Parliament: the Sexual Offences Act (which decriminalised homosexual acts for those over the age of 21) and the Abortion Act (which legalised abortion on a number of grounds, including to save the woman’s life or to avoid mental and physical damage to the woman). While Bartlett only mentions these Acts in passing it helps to have a kind of overview, because it explains how the times were a-changing and why this story particularly resonates.
The protagonist, Mr F, is 46 years old and lives alone. He has no friends or living relatives. His life is dominated by his work at a furriers, where he is the head cutter, crafting very fine fur coats from all kinds of animals skins. Everything he does, whether at work or at home, is regimented with military-like precision. There is nothing spontaneous or exciting about him.
Then, out of the blue, Mr F begins to have weird dreams in which a young naked man, his face obscured by his hair, is found hanging upside in his bathroom. These dreams become so disturbing that Mr F begins to lose his focus at work. Indeed, he becomes rather obsessed with determining who the man in his dream might be, and spends an awful amount of time behaving in what can only be described as a rather stalkerish manner — checking out men on the train and in the street, eyeing up the skin of their hands and the hair on their head. It all feels rather creepy.
The creepiness factor goes up a few notches when he is given a new apprentice at work. The apprentice is the boss’s 16-year-old nephew, whom the girls in the office have dubbed Beauty, because of his good looks. This takes Mr F, who is used to working alone and in a regimented fashion, out of his comfort zone, even more so when he begins to wonder whether Beauty might, in fact, be the boy of his dreams…
I’d be lying if I said this was a light and fluffy read. It’s not. It’s very dark, very disturbing and, at times, shocking. But Bartlett writes with a considerable amount of restraint, and just when you think the book’s going to become too violent to read, he pulls things back and reminds you that he’s telling a story and there’s no real need to be afraid. While the narrative is taut and will, occasionally, have your heart beating in your throat, there’s no gratuitous sex or violence. It’s almost what Bartlett doesn’t say, rather than what he does say, that makes this book such a heightened melodrama.
And just when you come to terms with the terror and anger of it all, you will find yourself deeply moved and close to tears. Is it any wonder that this is one of the most profound pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent times. More please.