Skin Lane, Neil Bartlett, Serpent’s Tail, 2007
In the hot, sweltering summer of 1967, London was still in the full flow of the swinging sixties. Music, art, books and consciousness were changing. Those at the centre then now stand back on the periphery now and smile, gazing back to when they thought society was changing. In the wider world as England baked under a roasted-eye sun, Sandie Shaw won Eurovision, Elvis and Priscilla got married and, in Houston, Muhammad Ali refused the draft for Vietnam that led to his three years in boxing exile.
But for the lead character in Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane, nothing is changing nor does he have the inclination to do so. Mr F. is, if not happy, content with his lot in life – he works for Scheiner and Sons, the furriers he was worked at for his entire working life, as he head cutter of furs, and lives alone in his flat that he compared to other, grimmer abodes as having ‘relative comfort’.
Mr F. is a creature of habit, adhering to a schedule for his entire life. He wakes up, goes to work, comes home and goes to bed. At weekends, he visits art galleries by himself, ever careful as he is in all areas to avoid contact, physical or emotional, with any other person. Such is the blankness of his personality that he finds himself referred to by his work colleagues just by the initial of his surname – Mr F.
For no good reason Mr F., a man who never dreams, begins to experience terrible nightmares that gradually begin to disrupt his neatly-ordered, static life. Each one is the same – inside his bathroom is the naked body of a young man hanging upside down whose face he never sees. Mr F. begins by coolly trying to dissect the vision but his night-terrors begin finding routes into his everyday life and he struggles as he comes to realise all the things he never thought he was.
Bartlett, writing his third novel in tandem with a successful career as a world-renown stage director, paints a vivid, engrossing picture of the people who were out of step with the swinging sixties, their attitudes and lifestyles more attuned to the forties and fifties that formed them rather than the present which surrounds and assails them on all sides. But despite this cultural isolation, it’s obvious that Mr F. and his ilk are part of a dying world that is being razed to make way for a new one.
Into this steps Beauty, the sixteen year old nephew of Mr Scheiner, who is being groomed to take over the family business. Yet Beauty, with his youth, seems to belong more to the generation that precedes him rather than the current one. When he dresses to go out on a Saturday night, he wears suits, shirts and ties. His tastes in music or literature are left undetermined. If there is a party going on, nobody in Skin Lane has been invited. And it’s Beauty’s dark heart, his hypocrisy where the old order is beginning to fray under the growing presence of the new, that brings sends Skin Lane into an obsessive and viper-dark direction.
Most explicit is Bartlett’s appropriation of the fairytale form which shapes the structure of the plot and the narrative voice. There’s even an inter-textual link to C.S. Lewis when the narrator, presumably Bartlett, reveals that he has pieced the story together from a letter left in an abandoned wardrobe.
Bartlett, exercising control and not forgetting realism, doesn’t provide his audience with the luxury of a happy ending, nor are we ever sure about who is the real beast in Skin Lane. Is it the vain, self-centred egotist Beauty or the obsessive and repressed but naïve Mr F.?
Skin Lane is a mythic story which from a lighter mindset might be one of those horribly twee narratives commonly described as an ‘awakening’. Bartlett doesn’t let anyone off that easily, crafting what can most accurately be described as a fairytale of explicit, dark desire.
Or is it? Maybe Skin Lane is a love story, or a fable about repression. Maybe it’s a hymn to those who came before and whose lives weren’t remembered.
And maybe that’s the best notion I can leave you, along with:
“Still look on the bright side, not knowing anything, doesn’t that mean anything can happen?”
Misquoted from Skin Lane
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Pete Carvill is the Senior Editor at 3:AM, covering both fiction and non-fiction. He writes as well, having published a handful of stories on the site. Most of them can be found on his MySpace page.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 19th, 2007.