Book review / Knife-styles of the rich and famous

SKIN by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
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.