Serpent's Tail £7.99
Skin Lane, By Neil Bartlett
Sunday 20 April 2008
Mr Freeman, or Mr F as he is referred to throughout most of this wonderful novel, is a single man nearing his 47th birthday. It's 1967 and he cuts hides for a living at a furriers in Skin Lane, one of the dark, hidden old streets near Cannon Street that used to host London's fur trade. A virgin, friendless, the peculiar thing about Mr F is that he seems perfectly content: "If anyone had ever asked him if he felt old-fashioned or lonely or hidden away, he would have never have dreamed of saying yes."
Readers are invited from the start, however, to think of him as odd. He never knew his mother and, as a child, urged his father to read him the poignant story of "Beauty and the Beast" each night.
Growing up he became attuned to sad sounds and repressed tensions: the lonely noise his father's wedding ring made as the man dropped it into a china bowl before doing the washing-up; his father ranting alone in his room after hearing that one of Mr F's brothers had been killed in the war.
Eventually Mr F settled into a regular routine at work and progressed to the top of his trade; but as his 47th birthday approaches, his routine falters. He is troubled by a recurring dream in which he finds the "lifeless, naked body of a white-skinned, black-haired, athletically well-built young man" hanging upside-down in his bathroom. His boss's handsome nephew comes to work under his supervision and he starts to feel a hunger.
This is such a rare book: an unnerving, uncanny tale and a colourful meditation on what a novel might be. Mr F's trade in skins points to so many things, from simple ideas about nakedness, vulnerability and exposure, to more complex ones about the language of the novel being a kind of "skin".
Mr F's story is told in the third person, which can be a godlike business: gods tend to judge and omniscience can go to a writer's head. But Bartlett's narrator stays with us in a personal way as we ponder our own judgements.
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