Although set in 1967 London, Skin Lane is not so much a novel about the swingin' sixties as it is a modern gothic thriller. Deceptively told as the story of one Mr F--a 46 year old confronted by his homosexual awakening--this novel is truly a tour de force of minimalism in the service of a vindication of one man's particular obsession with youth and beauty.
At the heart of the novel is the tale of the Beauty & the Beast. The novel is introduced with a flashback to Mr F as a child, who constantly requests his annoyed father to read to him the fairy tale. In his youthful imaginings, Mr F was the beauty in the story--pervertedly awaiting molestation by the beast. But Bartlett is not merely interested in childish perversions of horror. The story takes dark turns, often into surprising corners that thrill and repulse at the same time.
The motif of the beauty and the beast story recurs in surprising places throughout the novel. For one, it has a lot of fur in it. (No, not that kind of fur...) The adult Mr F has worked as a master cutter in a fur factory for , situated in a business district in London devoted to the fur trade called Skin Lane. (No, not that kind of skin trade...) (But one must admit how cleverly Bartlett implants such connotations--it's really just business). Although he has a knack for cutting the hides of dead rodents, Mr F is not so quite like the talented Mr Ripley. Oblivious to his surroundings and socially awkward, Mr F is a painfully shy manchild forgotten by time. And like other rumoured pederasts of ages past, Mr F is tortured from within.
This novel's particular torture comes in the form of Mr F's recurring dream. Lesser reviewers will choose to reveal the contents of the dream. Let's just say that it's another variation on the beauty and the beast story that Bartlett manages to insert into both Mr F's and the reader's imaginations.
While Skin Lane can at times come across as an unsavoury view of an older man who desires younger men, Bartlett's novel doesn't demonise Mr F. By book's end, the line betwen what is beautiful and what is beastly is blurred, revealing the novel's true intention. Mr F could've been anyone. Bartlett's cool prose even suggests at times that Mr F is such an improbable caricature that he shouldn't... couldn't... have existed.
But then there's that creeping sensation that he could've. And that any of us, forgotten by time, could turn into beasts ourselves.
Title: Skin Lane
Author: Neil Bartlett
(Serpent's Tail, 2007)
Labels: Neil Bartlett, Skin Lane, The Fictitious Review