“The stories we are told as children do, undoubtedly, mark us for life. They are often stories of dark and terrible things, and we are usually told them just before the lights are turned out and we are left alone; but we love them. We love them when we first hear them, and even when we are grown, and think we have forgotten them entirely, they never lose their power over us.” (4)
"Still look on the bright side, not knowing anything doesn't that mean anything can happen" (343)
Skin Lane is one of the most stunningly haunting books I've ever read. Choose your time well to begin this book. The first time I read it I began it just before friends dropped by for dinner so there were several hours before I could return to Mr. F and his haunting dreams and the fur trade. But after everyone had left, and it was quiet, I sat down and didn't stir until I'd finished the last page, the last sentence, the last word. I closed the book, and sat there thinking, thinking, thinking for a moment. Then I opened it up and began reading it again.
Of course, I've tried many times to put on paper why I love this book so much, but any review I have attempted since the first time I read it last year was so spoiler-y that it would have ruined the book for anyone who might decide to give it a try. It's not a book you want spoiled for you. Believe me. To really appreciate Skin Lane it's better to read it knowing just the bare bones of the story and allow Mr. Bartlett to lead you one step at a time into Mr. F's world of the late 1960s, the fur trade, his life.
Skin Lane is a book that defies categorization, having elements of a fairy tale mingled with gritty realism. There are these ... startling contrasts setting the tone for most of the novel and utilized powerfully throughout Skin Lane. There's Mr. F's physical description of being a rather large man with broad shoulders and a 'sturdy' build but with hands always framed by a pair of clean cuffs, rather large but not 'rough' or 'masculine'. In fact his hands are almost feminine: white, well manicured and with long, tapering fingers and perfumed. There's a sexual tension stretched so tautly that your skin tingles yet Mr. F is a virgin; there's the barbarism of the fur trade intermingled with the strange beauty and sensuousness of the finished products; there's the steadily building tension of impending horror that transforms into something else entirely; there's the monotony of Mr. F's routines juxtaposed with some of the most expertly written dramatic passages I've ever read. And there's the question of who is Beauty and who is Beast rocketing around this retelling of that popular fairy tale. Phew! Sounds a bit intense, doesn't it? Parts of Skin Lane broke my heart, parts made me want to jump into the book and put a comforting arm around Mr. F, but that would have probably made him feel more discomfited rather than less.
Mr. F's story is told in a bare bones manner that brings all the contrasting elements into sharp relief and in doing so made Mr. F's story more personal, more powerfully moving than it would have been had Mr. Bartlett wrote in a more elaborate, complex style. This is my first book by Mr. Bartlett, but not my last. I've read Skin Lane several times, and Mr. Freeman's story (as he becomes known by the end of the book) is still as emotionally wrenching and heartbreaking as the first time I read it. After each time I've read it, I find myself searching for images of Skin Lane, St. James Garlickhythe, and The Hill, looking for some ghostly remnant of a man in his white cutter's coat standing atop eight stone steps in front of a black painted door. Mr. Bartlett said in an interview with The Independent that if he had to choose between shelving his books in the fiction section or the gay section of a local bookstore, he'd rather have his books in both. I agree. I do believe with all my heart that Skin Lane needs to be read, experienced, discussed. It belongs on everybody's book shelf.