Book review / Knife-styles of the rich and famous

SKIN by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House pounds 16.99

Joanna Briscoe's heroine Adele gazes at the imminent landslide of shifting flesh in her mirror. "If there was anything people loved about me it was my facial skin. It was soap white ... it was like liquid," she comments as she gazes. "You can barely see the fading of beauty in yourself, and ageing comes in fits and starts, a clear period in which you appear to be ageless ... and then one morning you wake up and dry lines are etched in a new pattern of frowns and crannies ... it all happens in the space of a night."

Skin is the perfect emblem for a woman such as Adele, who has mythologised herself as a great beauty; also for a woman whose nerve-endings are so greedily responsive to the tactile adoration of men. Briscoe seems to have moved effortlessly to the fully heterosexual from the focus on lesbian love of her debut novel, Mothers and Other Lovers. At a time when many good writers seem to be backing off from sex scenes, probably because they do them badly, Briscoe is refining erotic writing into something quite unusual and transfixing even for the squeamish.

Briscoe sat in on several plastic surgery operations to research the background for this novel, and not surprisingly she passed out. It is with an open window and deep breathing that I quote: "His whole hand fitted inside the woman's cheek like a glove", and, amidst a hiss of pungent cauterisation, "sometimes a strand of smoke emerged from inside the woman's face".

Joanna Briscoe is clever enough to make the first of these clinical episodes the most livid. "I went to see Dr Kreitzman. He tidied me up a little." Subsequent treatments are passed off as mere fine tuning. This is clearly the way they are suggested to Adele herself. Having once learnt that Dr Kreitzman, the velvet-voiced plastic surgeon from America, says "some discomfort" when he means screaming agony, Adele eventually takes to cosmetic intervention like an addicted roulette player: maybe with the next spin of the surgeon's blade she'll be really beautiful again. They also don't tell you that once the face is pinned up here and there, everything starts to sag at different rates.

As the layers of skin are peeled back, we become narratively acquainted with Adele's younger selves and, crucially, explore why her tolerance of - and indeed her expectation of - pain is at a height when it comes to men. Adele is allegedly a feminist, of the Seventies revolutionary variety, not one of the new feminists, "those miracles of marketing with their big hair and their taunting of sacred cows for personal gain". Yet when it comes to hair and marketing, Adele's literary creation, Loulou, "part Scarlett O'Hara, part call to arms", is an ultra-feminine siren who gains control over men with her astounding good looks and fearless sexuality.

Covers of the Loulou novels famously feature images of Adele's own body, which helps to fan the flames of the smouldering icon. But now that the flesh is shifting, Adele wonders whether she - or Loulou - ever had control over anything. Her one true love, an Englishman called Laurence, was initially intoxicated by a cocktail of Adele's Austrian roots, her American zest and self-styled dewy sparkle, but finally he gagged on an excess of passion and the "gilded bloody frippery" of Loulou.

Keenly aware that "the line between has-been and legend is very fine", Adele retreats from the limelight to her lavish sanctuary in the cinquieme arrondissement. She painfully remembers the lost Laurence, the Austrian father who adored but abandoned her after they emigrated to America, and even Dr Kreitzman, that invader of her most sacred relic, her skin: "I let this man do this thing to me and then he didn't even come to see me," she grizzles. Her circle of acquaintance is whittled down to an 18-year-old Parisian student photographer who exploits her image professionally, while worshipping at the shrine.

Joanna Briscoe has superbly enhanced her portrait of Adele with carefully crafted suspense, never more so than when she leaves a chapter dangling with Dr Kreitzman's removal-of-the-bandages speech: "take a look ... but remember you're still quite swollen". Skin is an accomplished and very striking second novel and besides, the author has provided a cautionary service to anyone aggrieved at nature's plot-lines.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?