Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett (Serpent's Tail, paperback)
Neil Bartlett's new novel is a strange elegy to a lost city, a lost trade, and in many ways the manner in which time tramples all that was once important to the lived and spent. We are all destined to leave detritus. All that mattered will mean little to future eyes. The loves, the losses, the passions that burned so fiercely, become invisible with the savage progress of existence. It is a book of immense elegance, dignity and sadness. It is also a gripping read.
There is little that renders the central character, Mr. Freeman, a figure of interest, but Bartlett weaves a fascination for the reader by dissecting his nightmares, which are in direct horrific contrast to his extreme ordinariness. He is a loner, a hard worker, an expert cutter of skins and pelts. Bartlett brilliantly draws upon the sinister sensuality of this world, the knives, the rituals and processes of a trade that has passed from being at the core of fashion's fickle heart to being obsolete and shunned, a business run by men to adorn the female of the species with the dead fur of slaughtered beasts. The book is set in 1967, but this anti-hero isn't a part of the swinging eclectic world of Carnaby Street's explosion of social change. He does, however, experience his own emotional earthquake when he is handed the responsibility of educating his employer's nephew in the finer points of skin trade. The boy proves to be capable but no great enthusiast for the knowledge with which he is being served. He has an eye for the ladies, but is also savvy enough to be aware that his new master has an eye for him, which he hopes to use to his advantage. Thus begins a deadly and dangerous tango of frustration and deception.
Skin Lane is a book of echoes. It is a lament for old London in much the same way that Peter Ackroyd's compelling Hawksmoor embraced such nuances. It contains the perverse and sinister quality of Patrick Susskind's masterpiece of the macabre Perfume but it also has elements of Rodney Garland's classic thriller The Heart in Exile, which, written and set in the Fifties, rather mirrors the tone and attitudes which shape Freeman's unfolding story. In part a tale of doomed love, in part a fable of obsession, it proves Bartlett to be a novelist at the height of his considerable powers. Despite his surname, the central character does not live as a free man. He is tied to his routine of work, the magnitude of his swirling interior world, and his outward appearance to his colleagues of being a person to whom nothing much happens. As the story unfolds he does manage a strange degree of release and satisfaction. As his personal struggle remains unshared, the turbulence he experiences has few witnesses. As his world changes, so too does it become forgotten. The world's ability to ignore the lives of those who inhabit it goes to heart of Bartlett's novel. Like the last slow note of a sad song, it leaves a haunting awareness of life's capacity to plow over our most intense experiences. As the characters drift away and the text comes to an end, the reader is left with an aching feeling of regret.
Bartlett has created a novel that is distilled without being contrived. His success as a theater director holds a tale in place that could in less experienced hands seem too arch. He encapsulates the perverse sensuality and strangeness inherent in the fur trade. Just as the shears of the experienced cutter leave no trace when the pelts are stitched together, the world of those that created such an illusion are also rendered invisible. Given a glimpse of one disappeared world, we are left only too aware that ours will one day arrive at the same fate.