Hello and welcome to the fifth Not The TV Book Group here at Savidge Reads where I will be hosting my second, and last (for this series), discussion of the latest NTTVBG choice ‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett along with Lynne of Dovegreyreader, Kim of Reading Matters and Kirsty of Other Stories who have joined me, but where oh where are we, I hear you cry. Well this time rather than invade and old house of mine from the past and kick out the new owners, I have decided to bring you to my abode situated in the jewel (but I would think so) of South London…
Yes you are in Tooting Broadway!!! I was going to try and actually find the Skin Lane of the book but then as you will know, if you have read it, it’s not so easy to find in this day and age. However Mr. F our main protagonist was from an area of South London that isn’t very far away from where you find yourself today. So without further ado grab a seat on the sofa, The Converted One will be handing out cups of tea and various sweet delights throughout the day, and let’s get discussing ‘Skin Lane’ a novel that I thought was really rather remarkable.
I should really start with why I put this book forward, in part it was because it had been languishing on my shelf for sometime yet I had been intrigued by it, I had been meaning (and being endlessly recommended) to read Neil Bartlett for some time, its very different in genre from the rest of the books. I also wanted to choose a book that was out of the ordinary for readers, something I didn’t think many people would have read but maybe should have. I don’t want to say controversial because as soon as I see that in a review of a book I switch off, and if I hear someone say they read a book ‘because it’s meant to be controversial’ they go down in my estimation ever so slightly. ‘Skin Lane’ isn’t controversial, yes it’s dark, yes it has some rather disturbing themes and yes the plot runs around a man obsessed with another man, shocking I know, but its so much more than that… well I thought so.
Really this is the tale of a turning point in the life of Mr. F (don’t you just want to read more because of the mystery behind the name?) who leads an almost abnormally routine life style. He gets up, gets ready, goes to work, does his job, goes home, baths, goes to bed, gets up, gets ready… you get the gist. Only he does this all to a routine based on precision of the exact times of all his movements every day of his life, he even picks up the paper at the same time each day. You are aware that you are in the company of a rather unusual yet seemingly normal fellow. Until you learn of the dreams Mr. F is having.
Dreams seems the wrong word initially as to you or I these could be deemed nightmares. During his deepest sleeps Mr F starts watching himself, as if in a film, coming into his house, going through his routine until he goes to the bathroom to find a naked young man brutally, and fatally, tied up. The worse thing is, after having no idea who this male is; he ends up meeting the man he dreams of and really the story goes on from there. Only there is so much more to it and surrounding it.
I can imagine people reading that synopsis will either think ‘oh no not my cup of tea at all, I am not reading that’ or think this could be ‘one of those throwaway thrillers’ or even label it ‘a gay book’ and if that’s the case you would be missing out on an amazing book. Neil Bartlett takes you into the mind of a man who goes from knowing nothing about love to the extremes of obsession and desire he has no concept of and no way of dealing with.
It’s that journey, along with the cleverly woven storyline, the historical backdrop of the situation of homosexuality at that time and the wonderful voice of Bartlett’s (I actually felt as if the author was in the room telling me this tale the whole way through) that gives the book a pace and fatalism (and also some very black humour) that means you can’t stop reading. It all also leads you to an ending that has you on the edge of your seat before pulling the biggest shocker which isn’t the horror you were expecting, though it does get very dark and very tense, but the biggest shock of all, a total emotionally winding punch to you the dear reader. I will admit it left me a bit of a wreck (am not doing spoilers but feel free to in the comments), it was all utterly worth it for a reading experience like this as they don’t come around all that often.
I could go on and on raving about this book, the other wonderful characters that Bartlett creates (Mrs Kesselman is a wonderfully drawn formidable yet secretly caring middle aged woman who works with Mr. F), the descriptions of London in 1967 with its living and breathing atmosphere, the parallels with the much mentioned and alluded to ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the role of a victim as a tormentor, sexuality… the list is endless. I shall simply say if you haven’t read it then do so, I think this may very swiftly now be placed in my top 40 books of all time.
Right, enough of me whittling on, over to you…