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

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk