Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett is the rare book that can break your heart while scaring you to death.
Neil Bartlett’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast takes place in 1960’s London during the waning days of the fur trade. At one time there was a real Skin Lane, an area of London where all of the nations furriers operated, making a wide range of fur coats and other garments. Already the story is a little creepy.
The main character, Mr. F., has worked for the same fur manufacturer for 33 years. He has worked his way up from sweeping the floors to head cutter a supervisory position that will be as high as he can go since he is not part of the family that owns the business. Mr. F. has lived his life alone, sleeping in a single bed that he has never once shared with anyone male or female. He lives a simple, quiet, private life that satisfies him fully, until on night he begins to have a disturbing recurring dream.
He dreams that he finds a beautiful young man, bound and gagged, hanging upside down in his bathroom shower. Each night he dreams that he goes closer and closer to the body hanging in the shower, studying it, examining its skin the way he would examine a fur he has to cut into the pieces of a new coat. He wakes in a sweat, afraid to fall asleep again, afraid of what his dream means.
At work, he is given the job of supervising his boss’s young nephew who is learning the trade from the ground up in order to take over the business. The nephew is so handsome at 16-years-old that he is soon known as Beauty by the women who work in the sewing room where he starts his education in the fur trade. In his dreams, Mr. F. gets closer and closer to the body in his shower, close enough to see that it is dead, but not close enough to see who it is. Once Beauty is assigned to work under Mr. F., they begin to form a close relationship, close enough for Beauty to go to Mr. F. for help when he gets into trouble with one of the girls. As Mr. F. becomes physically and emotionally attracted to Beauty, he sees that the body hanging in his shower he dreams of nightly is that of the young man.
Neil Bartlett is a consummate story teller. The introductory sections that detail Mr. F.’s daily routine, the slow build up of tension as Mr. F. gets closer to young Beauty are not “exciting” as they might be a more conventional thriller. But as the details of Mr. F.’s dream and the inner workings of the fur trade emerge over the course of the novel, a tension builds that is much more authentic and disturbing than what is found in conventional thrillers. The effect is like watching a car wreck that gets worse before your eyes. You probably think you know what is going to happen in the end. But you don’t. Neil Bartlett sets things up to lead the reader to suspect an outcome, but what finally does happen is both unexpected and heartbreaking.
It’s been many years since I first reviewed this book for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I will confess that I don’t quite remember the ending, but I do remember how much I loved this book and how deeply it got under my skin. So to speak. While we get all of Neil Bartlett’s work over here in the U.S. it’s not prominently displayed very often, so he sneaks under my radar quite often. But every time I’ve found one of his novels, I’ve loved it. Skin Lane was no exception.