by Neil Bartlett
Neil Bartlett, whose third novel SKIN LANE is, has already carved out a distinguished career – earning an OBE - in the theatre. On the present evidence, there is no reason for him not to go on to make a similar impression as an author of tight, convincing and engrossing psychological novels.
The story, being driven by one man's internalisations, is much better suited to the page than the stage. The year is 1967. Mr F (the abbreviation is his nickname, not, thankfully, a postmodern authorial mannerism), the veteran of a love-deprived childhood and years of his own company, is a master fur cutter, commuting from a bare flat in Peckham Rye to Scheiner's, a busy furrier's in the City. In his mid forties, he is chronically withdrawn: solitary, repressed and gay. Two developments coincide to upset his world: the arrival of a dark-haired young apprentice – nicknamed "Beauty" by the women at work - and an alarmingly recurrent dream of a naked corpse in his bathroom. As the year progresses, the relationship between the boy and the man develops, although it would be unfair to spill too much of the action. Bartlett knows that the reader will be expecting something horrible from the combination of sexual repression, skewed relationships and sharp fur-cutter's knives, and plays astutely on our expectations as Mr F's condition veers towards the obsessive.
Both Mr F and Beauty are persuasively drawn, alternately confused and comforted by their proximity, and the contrast between the older man's introspection and the boy's youthful moods gives the developing tension a spring. London is the third lead, and Bartlett precisely evokes the way in which the city's traditional industries, bowler-hatted and deferent, were challenged by the swinging shock of the new – high-buttoned suits, contraceptive pill and all. He refers to contemporary newspapers and street plans as a historian would, but also takes care to include less documentary signs of the times - buddleia growing on the bombsites, for instance. The lost communities of EC4's Anglo-Jewish fur trade are affectionately evoked, their gatherings, among them a laconic analysis of the various transactions accompanying the fitting of a fur coat, relieving the mounting suspense. A fur is nothing if it is not a status symbol, and - as a good realist novelist should be – Bartlett is always alert to status, social position and economic imperatives.
The novel has much that is familiar: the management of fear and suspense is comparable to Patricia Highsmith's, the meditation on the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast recalls Angela Carter, and the ambivalently shifting balance of power in the relationship between Mr F and the boy evokes Nabokov's studies of sexual obsession. Bartlett's prose is less Olympian than these comparisons might suggest, but always measured, apt and precise, and SKIN LANE grips, and surprises, with real force.