Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

SkinLane

Neil Bartlett

Serpent’s Tail

Paperback, 344 pages, 2007

A Psychological Drama Unfolds into a Mystery

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should read Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett. A few months ago, I was flipping through a book I had purchased about ten years ago that I hadn’t liked very much, thinking of taking it in for recycling, and I found a scrap of paper stuck between its pages that I had obviously used as a bookmark. It contained, in my handwriting, the words

Skin Lane – Neil Bartlett

 

That was all.

I tried to throw this piece of paper into the garbage, but it wouldn’t go there—at least not right away. I could not get the idea out of my head that if I didn’t read that book, I might miss out on the most fantastic novel I had ever had the opportunity to read. So after fiddling with the corner of the little note off and on for a week or so, I ordered Skin Lane from AbeBooks. Then I threw the scrap of paper out.

The book arrived.

I devoured it.

*

Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends–his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.

It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at… what? That is the question he must ultimately answer – although for a long time it seems he doesn’t even know there is a question, and that he doesn’t really care.  But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.

Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too – as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.

Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can’t remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F’s nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.’s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?

Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead – where in a whole “Hidden World” of London, through winter’s cold and summer’s heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.

Bartlett’s clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created—just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.

*

I am grateful to my self for leaving myself a note all those years ago, and to my present self for trusting that I knew what I was talking about back then. I am also grateful to whomever it was that recommended the book and made me write its title down on a piece of paper—I’ll never remember who it was. As Bartlett himself might say in the voice of Skin Lane’s narrator: maybe it was you.

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