|Design by Julia Lloyd|
Titan Books, 5 November 2019
I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free copy of Skein Island to consider for review.
As a blogger it's easy to get a bit formulaic in your reviews. Plot précis. What the book meant to you. Some pithy quotes. A bit about the author's previous work and perhaps wider context. Summing up.
In the case of Skein Island, I can't do that and not just because - bad David! - I hadn't read any Whiteley before (that's something I'll have to fix). No. There's something about this book that is different. It's not that the plot is complex or difficult to engage with, or that the underlying themes are unclear - rather these are admirably laid out.
We meet Marianne, a librarian who's just suffered a traumatic act committed by a man - but who has also received an invitation to attend a week long retreat on an island community set aside for women. (An invitation from a dead woman, but let's leave that for now).
We also meet her husband, David. The story then follows both in the succeeding days as they adjust (differently) to what happened. Marianne, of course, has rather more to bear (it's not just what happened in the library that night, her mother disappeared seventeen years ago - after visiting that same island).
David is... rather annoying. (Can I take this chance to invent the hashtag #NotAllDavids ?) Clearly desiring to be supportive, or at least to play the role of somebody who is supportive, he seems to be subtly off key, not quite reading the situation right. He wants to make what happened about him, not Marianne. He should have protected her. Now, he should avenge her. He lurks outside the library, waiting for the suspect. David is casting himself as the hero in a story that isn't even about him. In this, he receives succour and support from the regulars who assemble nightly in The Cornerhouse, a dive pub where a strange game is played ('the cubes') that casts men in one of four roles - hero, villain, sidekick or sage.
As the story developed, I began to find Whiteley's description of David truly creepy. He seems to be on a voyage of discovery, but also to know what he's discovering. He falls into that hero role far too easily, too unquestioningly. He also seems to foster an unhealthy relationship very quickly with the female PCSO who's investigating what happened to Marianne. I think that given Marianne's absence, Sam may in his mind be taking the part of the woman who David has to "protect".
At a more thematic level there's an oddness about the whole setup , As I said, David isn't, shouldn't be the hero here but the story also gives him that role, it's as though there is an unfilled space, an empty niche, in the structure that simply won't be denied. I think that Whiteley's being very clever with this, she seems to be saying, look - this is what men do, but also - even when I'm writing a book about women, they still do it. In a sense I think that what's being shown up here isn't only the world as we find it but also the very narrative conventions that tell us how stories about the world must be written (and which therefore tell us how we will find it).
Enough of David!
While all that is going on, Marianne is also discovering a great deal of strangeness on Skein Island, that women-only community (the name itself an allusion to spinning and weaving, crafts often seen as embodying the unwinding of fate fate and, of course, as women's work). I enjoyed the scenes describing her - and the other women's - arrival there, recalling Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None - another book in which a hidden hand is directing choices and imposing a narrative. I also enjoyed discovering the inhabitants of the island - Inger, Vanessa, Kay, Rebecca. Whiteley observes closely how they react and work together, or don't - the rational Rebecca, who Marianne doesn't like much but who will come to act as her anchor, Inger who - like the men in The Cornerhouse - feels an urge to be a rescuer but who doesn't - unlike them - allow that to define her life.
During the part of the narrative we begin to learn a little about what's really happening, about what is guiding this drive to narrative and its implications for both men and women. That is important knowledge, as the world begins to spiral out of control due to all those men acting out their roles. it is knowledge that may allow things to be fixed - but that has to be done by a woman, and how can that be achieved in the face of all the self dramatising would-be heroes?
The form of the narrative throughout is very tightly bound with the themes being discussed. Its impossible to separate the underlying motivation of this book - which I think is the tendency of men to appropriate and redefine women's experience - from the fact that it is, indeed, a book, a story, a narrative so in a sense everyone here is playing a role set out for them by the author. Combined with the idea of a very active Fate shaping and snipping at destinies, all this gives the reader a lot of material for thought - though it does not weigh down what is a tightly plotted, absorbing narrative inhabited by sharp drawn, engaging characters.
As a coda to the main story there is a short story too, The Cold Smoke Declaration, taking place in the same world but some time after the main events. The themes are slightly different - it is more a ghost story than the main one which is more fantasy or folk horror - but the observation, the characterisation and the sharpness of the plot are equally good.
For more about Skein Island, see the publisher's website here.