Monday 29 January 2018

The Skin Room by Morgan Fleetwood

The distinct smell of the postmodernist masterpiece, ‘Perfume; The Story of a Murderer’, by Patrick Suskind, is hard to forget. Equally difficult it is to miss the unmistakable similarities of Morgan Fleetwood’s debut novel ‘The Skin Room’ with Suskind’s story. Both the protagonists, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and Alex Melville, are in search of a personal identity; one which seems true. Their motives are born of the lack of maternal attention, and their urges driven toward seeking out the elusive essence that makes them. In a more cinematic sense, this book reminds one of the ‘Psycho’ too, with a macabre meticulousness that made the 45 seconds long shower scene unforgettable. ‘The Skin Room’ reminds you of some of the suspense thrillers that preceded it, but it hooks you at the edge of your reading chair with its own stamp of screams, suspense, secrets and spiraling ennui. 

The document that Alex, a multi-lingual translator and murderer, is writing forms the narrative of the novel. Like a diary, if you may. His blood-stained and action-packed account, as well as his confession to killing Valentina, is addressed to an Inspector. It is this Inspector that Alex holds responsible for his sister Sonia’s death, who Alex spends most part of the story looking for. The book begins in a ‘bad part of town’ where Alex is looking for a ‘bad girl’ and ends in Sonia’s apartment, where Alex reaches his ‘final incarnation.’ Between the first scene and the spectacularly disturbing climax three things don’t let up – points of suspense with the imminence of something to come, sudden twists in the tale and Alex’s strange, strange voice in our heads.

The points of suspense oscillate between action and thought, bloody deeds and memories. There is always a ‘maybe’ trailing Alex’s every move, and one sitting lodged in the reader’s head. A preparedness for a surprise twist, yet none the less exciting for coming in unfailingly. Unexpected arrivals and departures, blunt hits and sharp misses are a constant. But what is most unexpected? ‘I wanted to have her, and I was had, by her. L’arro seur arose.’ The hunter turns hunted. The murderer gets soaked in his own blood. It is around this axis that the plot flips, and rotates. 

Sometimes, we gallop from one scene to the next, travelling between cities or in and out of rooms with equal speed. Contrarily, Alex slows down the pace so much sometimes that we want to nudge him to move on. Because any more guess-work to do with, say, his father’s dementia (Does he know? Does he remember there was a woman Alex brought into the house?) frustrates the reader. Any more tardiness in unravelling his next move in the cave with Valentina suffocates. Just another minute’s delay by Sonia’s boyfriend in telling Alex about her whereabouts makes our lungs burst. 

We readers are impatient pawns in the hands of the narrator’s clock. Maybe because we have tasted blood. And surely because of how Fleetwood decided to create Alex and his voice. 

Alex, the ‘humble translator with a unique obsession’, ends up opening the widest window to his own mind – not just its bloody deeds and ‘filmic rushes’ of ‘peeling the skin away’ but also its follies, frailties, fears and failures. His narration is not conceited, because he is not. You will catch him looking at his hands, asking, ‘were they capable of murder?’ while on the next page all doubts would have been laid to a dark rest. In that, Alex is a “different” kind of a criminal, crisscrossed with contradictions, doubt and helplessness. 

Remember Grenouille’s utter confidence in seeking a scent? Alex has none of that. While the former moves ahead testing his limits, Alex gets his limits tested, instead.

No doubt he is a sick person, with pouches full of his mother’s and sister’s nail clippings, satisfying an ‘illness’ he recognizes as just that and finding ‘a favourite comforter’ in a dream where Sonia scrapes her knee, and ‘the exposed layer, the pinkness...a revelation to me.’ However, his mind often surprises itself, catching itself off-guard, with its calmness or its rage. His is a mind which is as much trying to unravel itself as it tries to unravel the events for ‘Inspector Sin’. And for us. So you too may wonder - Is he actually a wielder of his sickness or its victim? No, you won’t feel sorry for him. But you will fail to not see in him a human being, a brother, an ignored sibling wanting to be ‘cradled. Kept.’ As if he is one from amongst us, turned thus circumstantially. A ‘monster capable of reflection’. 

The final chapters see him spiraling into a very dark labyrinth of thoughts, spectacularly put together with nuanced madness and a breathless loss of method. His acute perception of and documentation of both people and events which occupied the narration till now are replaced by his turning within, many moments of mindless acts looking for an order; alone. The dizzying sequences culminate in blood and a terrifying ‘living work of art’ that makes your gall rise, but takes your breath away.

I guess you’re building up a picture of me slowly, and that’s the way I want it.’ Alex says this at the start of the book. By the end of it, it is not just the picture and the events which disturb. It is the fact that somewhere the reader has been held spell-bound by a criminal revealing his mind and motives, and totally fascinated with the most unsettling of revelations and scenes. This reader got involved in every bit of the telling, every bit of Alex’s “becoming”. It says a great deal about the power of Alex’s narration (and Fleetwood’s craft). But what does this macabre enjoyment tell us … about us? ‘Even if I laid down all my justification, you probably wouldn’t understand,’ says Alex almost at the start of his narration. No, we don’t. The complete depravity. But how do we as readers justify our fascination for reading about it? Or even to have found a haunting depth in a paragraph such as ...

What’s wrong with imperfection? … What’s wrong with down, with lines, with veins? Show me them all, I want the lot. These are the surface stresses of the soul… I'm for the removal of skin as a barrier to internal beauty, setting free the leaking reds, the swilling pinks, the oozing folds.

The Skin Room’ by Morgan Fleetwood is a well-written thriller. If it is just shy (by the skin’s thickness no more) of being great, it is because maybe the time has come to think of better motives for male derangement than a lack of maternal love. The mother-angle has been done to death in countless movies and books! It is Alex’s parallel (though related) need for becoming his ‘authentic self’, to find his ‘underlying solidity’, which firmly puts the ‘why’ back in this ‘whydunnit’ and turns revenge to a resurrection. 

Alex is the character you want to turn inside out. His psychological drama is the heart, the hands, the very flesh that makes this book what it is. A good one! 

'The Skin Room' by Morgan Fleetwood is published by Howarth Press, 2017.

[Review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

Friday 3 November 2017

How do I keep the right balance between YES and NO

Being a parent isn’t easy. Forgetting that you’re one is even more difficult. Once a parent, you will always think, feel, assess, react, celebrate and even cook like one. But despite this 24 X 7 roller-coaster ride, you never get off the seat at the end of the day and say with triumph – ‘Now I know it all’. Because, you cannot. Basically, if every parenting issue we have to face was a bulb, we’d be lighting our way to the moon!

Someone wise once told my husband, and he makes sure he reminds me every day, ‘the smaller the child, the smaller the problems. The bigger the child, the bigger the problems.’ Strangely, he thinks it’ll help me cope with my young kid’s issues much better. Even more strangely, it helps because I know ‘the bigger-the better’ war is lurking in the future. What also helps this social media addict is turning to the online community for everything - from the tried-and-tested tips to the latest trending issues. That’s when I came across this video:

The video shows the very common problem of children interpreting their parents’ basic instructions about their health and well-being in their own way. The misinterpreted instructions lead to social and psychological effects, which were neither intended by nor known to the parents.

Sunday 15 October 2017

God is in the details in Rajiv Mittal’s ‘Brahmahatya’

The Prologue to Rajiv Mittal’s ‘Brahmahatya’, with its absolute finality of ‘what is over is over’, draws you in, immediately. Is it a sigh of relief, this sense of closure right at the start of a book? Or is it a tone of defeat the book whispers in? The curious unhurried juxtaposition of a priest getting dressed and a man trying to be ‘old enough to be his father’ just a page later only adds to what seems like a very unusual start to a book.

The story of ‘Brahmahatya’ is at once tragic and triumphant, banal and sacred, real and unreal, of this world and another. The book is ripe with episodes from Hindu mythology and excerpts from ancient scriptures which are appropriated by the characters to understand their circumstances, or by the author, in order to move the story forward.   

Govindarajan Memorial Residency (GMR) is an old age home in a Southern state of India. Most sponsors of the aged residents, like Ravi the protagonist, live overseas. The fee for care-giving and for funerals is duly sent, keeping oiled the wheels of this plush retirement home, comfortable but speckled with greed and politics. The residents ‘were historical but they definitely were not works of art in a museum; these were crumbling.’ The atmosphere is one of a ritualistic sameness of routine and a smell of medicines, decay and death.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

The Curious Case of Hanging Laundry

I am extremely perturbed today. I have learnt from various sources that it’s against gentle manners to dry your laundry out on balconies, your balconies of your houses, out here in Brussels. I also learn that this is true for many countries around the world, but about those mennu kee. I’m not looking for comfort in numbers here. I am, right now, looking at the sun shining on my balcony, and with a gentle wind calling out to the washed laundry piled in the bucket near my feet, waiting to be freed.

Yes, freed. I’m sure wet clothes have feelings too. That they like to hang freely after what they go through in the washing machines. To wave their arms and legs and hems and holes as they dry in the wind and sunshine. And what about their daily dose of Vitamin D? No, this isn’t my angry state of mind muttering untruths to me. This is the absolute truth. It pinches as hard as the hardest clothes-clip the very moment you have to push your clothes rack into your drawing room, and start hanging your soaking laundry there, hoping this summer of 09 will last forever.    

For a city which barely manages to get enough sun in a year to make rai ka achaar, I find this tradition absolutely unbelievable. Or maybe, they just don't know what they're missing!

Friday 7 July 2017

Hairy Legs, Brussels and ‘I think she likes me’

The hair on my arms is the length of my toes. The hair on my legs has reached my toes. I wouldn’t say it is a completely new experience, but it is certainly most novel to experience it when a country is celebrating, yes celebrating, all 13 degrees of its summers with skin and sunshine. On the cobbled streets of Brussels I am probably the only one wearing stretch denims while the world is sprinting ahead of me in airy, breezy and frivolously delicious summer clothes. The moment I spot a pair of smooth legs enjoying the sunshine, it is as if the jeans grow four sizes smaller to kill me with asphyxiation, or whatever the hell tight jeans can do to your health when the heart burns green. 

But my hands are tied. 

I am thousands of kilometres away from a long-trusted tin of Shabnam Cold Wax (Rs 70) and a packet of disposable white waxing strips (Rs 25). Are there no salons in Brussels, you ask? There’s one in every Rue, but with my level of fluency in French I believe I might as well discuss foreign policy with a plant, and succeed in having a path-breaking dialogue, than explain to la fille successfully that I need a wax. Um, there is another reason why I have been Google translating salon menus but not garnering the courage to enter and ask for a pure and simple wax. 

It seems to me to be a secret kind of … something. It caught me by surprise. And I have been trying to unravel it as much as I have been my overgrown eyebrows from my lashes.
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