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
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
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.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower