Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Book Review: Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett

I first saw a copy of Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett in the Hugh Owen library at Aberystwyth, in a small fiction stand by the entrance, propped up between The Kite Runnerand Small Island.  That was almost three years ago, but it was only last month that I finally bought a copy.  The cover, with its photograph of fur and steel, and blurb which gave almost nothing away, had me thinking it would be an urban thriller in the vein of Fight Club.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Narrated in an omniscient voice familiar to anyone who has ever been read a fairy tale or bedtime story, Skin Lane is the story of Mr F - a middle aged man who works in the fur industry and lives a solitary existence.  The year is 1967, the setting is London, and Mr F's structured, quiet life is about to be thrown into chaos.  One night, he has a dream.  An unsettling, compelling dream which returns night after night

Mr F's nocturnal insecurities begin to bleed into his usually disciplined working life.  When his employer brings in his nephew and instructs Mr F to take him on as an apprentice in the cutting room, he finds somebody on which he can place all of his fear and blame for the dream.  The nephew is young, handsome, cocky and charming - everything Mr F is not.  As the narrative takes an unexpected turn, each man is cast in their respective role of Beauty and the Beast.  The apprenticeship unfolds almost like a love affair, as each piece of raw, wild skin is transformed into a thing of luxury, to be placed upon the shoulders of a wife or mistress in return for one favour or another.

For the first two hundred pages, I had no idea where this story was going, or where it possibly could go.  So little actually seems to happen, and yet at the book's end, everything has changed.  Skin Lane is not a fairy tale, nor is it a love story.  It is simply Mr F's story: one of loneliness and desire, although it is unlikely that such an insular, compulsive character would even recognise these words as pertaining to him. 

You might not think that a novel set against the fur trade of the 1960s would be the most engaging of stories, but I was rapt throughout.  Bartlett's writing had me cringing with discomfort on one page, then would bring a sting to my eyes in the next.  Its closing chapters are by far the strongest, as all of the latent passion of the last three hundred pages is finally addressed, resolving everything and nothing.


  1. I can't think of a better novel about desire and its persecutions than this book. It is as you say a superlative read. The backdrop imagery of the fur trade is just pitch perfect.

    Thanks for the review. May just have to reread this soon.

    Marc Nash

  2. Glad you enjoyed the review - as soon as I finished reading the book I went online to see what other people thought, and just about every critic loved it.