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Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett

Skin Lane

by Neil Bartlett

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The storyline went in a very different direction from what I initially expected. The narrative technique was interesting and I found myself feeling horribly sad for the main character quite more than expected, but the extent of detail used to describe his daily routines and the fur trade began to wear me out a bit. An interesting psychological profile of a lonely individual, but not quite my cup of tea. ( )
  PagesandPints | Sep 1, 2016 |
Well, this was disappointing. The book started promisingly enough; I'm quite fond of protagonists who are ineffectual and invisible souls seemingly doomed to unhappiness, and Bartlett began to portray one of them well. Moreover he held my interest in his account of the work of a furrier and his description of the old dark environs of this particular furrier's was atmospheric. But by the time I'd got halfway through I was as annoyed as I was interested, and not long after that I found I wasn't reading closely. By the last 50 pages I was hurriedly skimming.

What particularly annoyed me was the tone of the novel. The omniscient narrator for some reason occasionally and abruptly slips into casual references to himself and the reader. The device seems a random choice for this particular book as here it's needless and pointless; in fact, irritation aside, it distances the reader from the protagonist and the events rather than enhancing them or impressing them upon one. And oh good lord, after a dozen phrases like 'I think Mr F felt . . . ', 'most of us have sometimes thought . . .' and 'you probably remember how . . . ' I found that various & sometimes obscene phrases rebuking the author were popping into my head.

Not only does Bartlett insist upon the reader's complicity with him, he tells when he's already shown, his use of repetition is fairly heavy-handed, he inserts sometimes uninteresting tidbits of London history even (and most hamfistedly) when the story should be at its most taut. Moreover for what it is and for the effect that I suspect is being sought, the novel's much too long. Again, a lot of what's included in it seems unnecessary, blunting the impact of the story itself. I've read quite a few novels and novellas with similar protagonists that were far more powerful in many fewer pages ( and I don't know how telling it is that the ones that first came to mind were originally in French) . Written without the unwelcome chumminess but with much greater tightness and focus Skin Lane might have been a very good book. ( )
  bluepiano | Oct 20, 2013 |
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.

See the rest of this review at http://marywwaltersbookreviews.wordpress.com ( )
  MaryWWalters | Feb 27, 2013 |
Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett

This novel was shortlisted for the Costa Award in 2007. It is a retelling of 'Beauty and the Beast' set in London in the 60's at the end of the fur trade. The main character simply known as Mr F. is a solitary man whose life is meticulous in routine. He has worked at the same establishment for over 30 years and each day retraces his steps exactly returning home spending his time alone living in a small flat with little human contact. One day his predictable existence is altered when the owners nephew is apprenticed to him. He is chief cutter having worked his way up from a sweeper at the furrier. Soon he begins to experience a recurring haunting dream. Mr F. senses a connection between his dreams and this young man whom the women in the factory have nicknamed 'Beauty'.

This is a very compelling and dark book and not like anything I have ever read before. The erotic tension is palpable but ultimately there is no sex. However it builds and builds and then the omnipresent narrator pulls you back just enough so that you catch your breath and then it begins all over again. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote jeniwren | Jul 24, 2010 |
Mr F has worked for 33 of his 47 years in the fur trade in 60s London and is a master cutter who takes pride in his work. A bachelor, he leads a strictly ordered life, running to a strict to the minute timetable that rarely deviates. It’s not a normal life, but then neither was his female-free childhood. Then he starts to have dreams, nightmares in which he discovers the bleeding body of a beautiful youth tied up in his bathroom. They won’t go away, and he finds himself obsessing about the body, looking at young men when he’s on the train. At work in Skin Lane, in the fur-trading area of the city, Mr F has further reason to be perturbed. He’s put in charge of training the nephew of the firm’s owner in cutting as part of learning the business. The boy has been nicknamed Beauty by the girls in the sewing room, and Mr F although initially aloof is increasingly interested in the boy, then realises that he resembles the body in the shower …

This chilling drama will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Firstly, it is told through a knowing narrator’s voice, who always knows what’s coming next; we are manipulated all the way through and this device successfully ratchets up the tension notch by notch. Secondly, we learn all about the fur trade – from selecting skins, cutting, sewing, and finally the selling of fur coats to men who give them to their floosies for sex.

The book started slowly, building up the story of Mr F’s over-normal life, and learning about the trade which made fascinating reading. All along though the narrator gives a sense of nasty things to come. I must admit, when things started to turn nasty, I thought the narrator was leading us down a more grizzly path than actually happened (an overactive imagination or what!), I had visions of ghoulish Jack the Ripper style murders to come. However what we got was much more subtle than that and also inextricably linked to the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, which was Mr F’s childhood favourite.

I can honestly say I had no idea what was going to happen or how things would end. I was expecting Mr F to be a real monster, yet ended up feeling sorry for him, instead hating Beauty’s beastly ways. This was a masterly novel of suspenseful storytelling. If you have the stomach for it, I’d strongly recommend it. (9/10, I bought this book). ( )
  gaskella | Apr 12, 2010 |
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Middle-aged Mr. Freeman lives a lonely, celibate life, centered around his work as a fur skinner. He starts having disturbing dreams that feature the nude corpse of an attractive young man.

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