on 28 November 2011
This book is set in the late 60s in London and follows Mr F, a middle aged man living a very solitary existence. He runs his life in a series of set routines, always catching the same train every day to work, walking the same route and listening to the same radio stations etc. One day he starts to have a disturbing dream which becomes a reoccurring one. This dream is so disturbing that he begins to lapse concentration in his day to day life and ends up going on his own personal journey to try to find out the meaning of this.
The book is called Skin Lane after an area in London where the fur trade was based. Mr F is a `cutter' he selects and cuts the furs before they are transferred to the ladies who then stitch them together. By the time the furs reach Mr F the animals have long been killed so we do not get any descriptions on this, we do however get descriptions on how furs are selected for each garment, the whole range of furs available at that time and why a simple coat is so expensive. All of this is woven into the plot and at times added in order to add to the mounting tension as is the unbearable heat of the summer that most of the book is set.
In terms of plot not a huge amount happens yet the book is filled with gripping tension which is full of suspense. It's also quite frightening in places as I tried to perceive what direction the book was going in. The descriptions of London in the book are wonderful and I was able to imagine the setting easily, the descriptions are not of London today (of which I am familiar) but of a post war late 60s London. Mr F makes for a fascinating character made even more so by the fact that he does not voice or talk about his emotions at all, he is practically incapable of self analysis. We gain insight into his character by his actions and the way he deals with situations which sometimes become unbearable for him.
I did like this book it's certainly interesting and quite different to a lot of books I have read and is one that stays with you.
Skin Lane is stunning. As 2007 draws to a close, I’m confident that this is my novel of the year. It knocks spots off everything on the Booker longlist.
The novel is noir-ish – it features Mr Freeman, a lonely bachelor who works as a master fur cutter in a small, family owned company in the city of London. It is 1967, the year that saw the summer of love and great social change.
Mr Freeman, or Mr F as he is known to all, is a throwback. He has owned three brown suits in his 33 year working life. He lives alone and has no social life. He has never been in love. At times, his life feels Victorian, rather than preserved in aspic somewhere between 1934 and 1967. But Mr F’s life kickstarts into action as he starts to dream of a dead body in his bathroom and the furriers takes on the owner’s nephew as an apprentice.
Skin Lane is narrated with an insistent voice, talking directly to the reader from the present day. There are knowing asides that could have been irritating if they were not done with such a gentleness of touch. Skin Lane takes the social changes of 1967 and shows how little they touched some parts of 1960s London, whilst the new generation took for granted what the older generation would never really feel free enough to enjoy. And in this is the irony of Mr Freeman, who didn’t even have the freedom to be known by his full name.
Skin Lane explores themes of love and sexuality. As in Alfie, the film, they are shown as isolating rather than joyful. We feel the tragedy of wasted lives, mindnumbing routine, drudgery. Like the furs, and like Mr F’s suits, the novel feels as though it is painted in brown. But amongst the drabness, there is detail that sings. Neil Bartlett manages to create a complete world around No 4 Skin Lane and the surrounding churches and warren of lanes. The attention to detail in describing the work of the furriers – both in the cutting room and in the office – is utterly compelling without ever feeling stodgy. And the knowing contrasts with the present give a very eerie feeling. We know that the fur trade in Skin Lane is doomed. We know that fur itself will become taboo. This just adds to the melancholy of the piece as we watch the reverence for traditions that will be gone forever in just ten years time.
The denouement, when it comes, is achieved with grace and style. It feels profound, but never loses touch with the immediate and personal tragedies at play.
This novel is a masterpiece.
[I wrote this review in 2007 - it appears to have been deleted, so here it is again]
on 20 November 2008
I had completely forgotten how beautifully Bartlett writes! After 2 pages of "Skin Lane" I was gripped; the first "here it comes" sent the proverbial shivers up and down my spine. Many a time during the read I had to put the book down, as I couldn't take the tension anymore; at other times, because I didn't want it to end. I have not been so involved with fiction for a very long time.
This book doesn't preach; it tells a story, makes you love and hate both protagonists at equal measures and leaves you with the sense that, if only for a brief time, you got to know someone. On the way, it can scare the living daylights out of you. Brilliant!
on 12 August 2010
This book is a wonderful evocation of the 1960s, an industry now gone and brilliantly illustrated. Neil Bartlett really captures the spirit of what it is to love someone who will never love you back. The suspense is great, the story brilliantly crafted. This is one of my favourite books of all time. I have recommended it to several friends and they all agree it is an excellent book. I was captivated by it. Neil Bartlett hasn't written many novels but they are all worht checking out. I am eagerly waiting his next... There is one bit where your heart will literaly be in your mouth!
on 26 February 2008
This stunning novel creates psychological tension, not through the endless shocks and horrors typical of the video generation, but through layer upon layer of authorial craft, slicing and shaving its way to the heart of a man. An unusually incomunicative creepy man.
The result is engaging and tense, intriguing and gripping, in a gentle pervasive way that is far too rare these days.
Read the book. It's weird, it's strange, it's art. And then wait for someone to ruin the film.
on 6 February 2008
I found this book a most enthralling and moving read and my excitement and enjoyment increased as my reading progressed. What a joy to have this book to return to after a day at work. The theme of deeply thwarted, hidden desire in the hot summer of 1967 is beautifully handled and convincing. The ending is moving and profound. Overall, a very impressive novel quite unlike anything I have read before.
on 7 September 2007
Skin Lane is very quiet, and very profound. It tells the story of Mr F, who works in Skin Lane making fur coats. His is a very banal and orderly existance, until one night he dreams (a thing he never does) of a naked boy hanging in his bathroom. The boy in question, nicknamed 'Beauty', works with Mr F, who becomes obsessed with him. It it extremely moving and there are minor references and parallels to Beauty and the Beast. The ending is astounding, as is everything that leads up to it. Bartlett has a very eerie way of connecting past events with the present. This book is definately worth reading!
on 19 July 2013
This was our group's favourite book of the year - probably of all time. There are good, vivid descriptions, pauses in sentences are broken into paragraphs to give a sense of the movement of time, and accurate historical references e.g. Detroit July 27, 1967 (riot after police raided Blind Pig - an illegal alcohol place), London storms August 1967
Mr. F is 46 and has been a Head Cutter at the same furrier business for 33 years, having risen through the ranks from his start as a sweeper. He came from a time before fashions in men's clothes so he wears the same suit style, didn't change his mind about things, takes the same route to work every day, past bomb site rubble, avoids physical contact on the tube and values his privacy. He is a perfectionist as he is the best cutter in London and wears a waistcoat and tie even in very hot weather. (He must have all the sheets on his bed, whatever the weather - and this is the hot summer of 1967.) There is no need for an alarm clock as he follows the exact same routine daily, stirs the tea pot 3 times exactly, though he once leaves crockery unwashed on draining board. He leaves the bathroom window open all day, is still a virgin (has a body "well preserved, but largely unused." and he does not respond to women's innuendo and banter. Typical of men of his type, he had a cold father and elder brothers and remembers the smell of cigarette smoke on their clothes when the brothers come back. He goes to galleries and museums at weekends. At work, he becomes infatuated with the sixteen-year-old nephew of the boss who is being trained up and he leaves times gaps between looking at him, `Beauty' of 2 hours. He is aware of thoughts, not feelings and is with him 8 ½ hours every day. He treats the boy as his father treated him. He asks himself, `Why is it that young men can always tell when they are being stared at, even from behind?...could feel his eyes on his arse.'
On the tube, he doesn't read an article about the Commons debate about decriminalising abortion and homosexuality because he feels that it can't possibly be about him and not sure if abortion is going to be made easier or harder.
He takes a swift walk home after the fire and discovers that it only takes half the time that the tube would take. London really did stop at night then. On losing his job, he keeps a cutting of a woman in the coat he had made and he walks a different way to new job and insists on being called by his full name, `Mr. Freeman'
The author likes musing on places and how they have changed and who has traversed them at different times. He reimagines Wilde's London and is led down unfamiliar streets by men who lived a hundred years ago. In this book, Mr F feasts his eyes on a young man asleep on a train, or follows another man he encounters at Cannon Street Station.
on 26 December 2012
Skin Lane is a short masterpiece, a compelling psychological drama with all of the page-turning attributes of a good mystery. Neil Bartlett, its author, is a prolific playwright as well as a novelist, and his focus in this story is a 46-year-old man whom we know mostly as Mr. F. He is one of the last generation of skilled cutters who worked for the 300 furriers who plied their wares on Skin Lane and neighbouring streets in the City of London in the first half of the 20th century. As the novel opens, Mr. F. has lived the same unfulfilling, solitary, virginal life for three decades, going by train to work each day at the same time, home again each night, wandering the city or visiting art galleries on the weekends-his routine unbroken, his mind numb even to its tedium.
It is the mid-sixties and it is London: and we can see that all around him the world is changing. His generation and those who have gone before may be mired in tradition and obligation and doing what is right and proper, but young people are ignoring all the rules, breaking them at every turn. It appears Mr. F. has been left behind, has missed his chance at... what? That is the question he must ultimately answer - although for a long time it seems he doesn't even know there is a question, and that he doesn't really care. But we soon learn that he is watching, from the corner of his eye, from beneath his lowered lids: he sees the life that pulses just beyond his grasp in the taut bodies of the young.
Mr. F. starts having a recurring dream that appears to have its roots in his childhood reading of Beauty and The Beast. The dream, a nightmare really (except that there is something deeply compelling about it too - as there are in so many good nightmares) begins to wake him up to his own sexuality, but in a dark way: intertwining it with the bloody work he does.
Anyone who has dreamed about a specific person and known that he or she must have seen that other person in real life, but can't remember where or when, as I have done, will recognize the central mystery in this novel: Who is the young man who figures in Mr. F's nightmares, dead, beautiful, hanging upside down, apparently murdered in Mr. F.'s own bathroom? And what do the dreams portend?
Skin Lane is a gripping read, building in intensity, and while we are compulsively reading forward in spite of our dread of the outcome, we are also absorbing the smells and fascinating facts about a world even now just newly dead - where in a whole "Hidden World" of London, through winter's cold and summer's heat, men on the top floors of a narrow building cut the skins of animals to pieces, and sewed them into expensive new skins that men would later use to decorate their most prize possessions: their wives and mistresses.
Bartlett's clever conversational tone and his apparently infinite capacity for detail draws us in to his confidence. It convinces us that this writer has the inside track on this world, and on the enigmatic man he has created--just one example of the millions of people in the world who lead outwardly unremarkable lives but who (we know) must be capable of anything.
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on 11 June 2011
A tight little story with some genuinely shocking page-turning moments. The style is little different and perhaps the author 'commentary' here and there will annoy (I personally enjoyed those parts as it added to the conspiracy) but the ideas within about how we truly see ourselves & what we hold dear, our ability or inability to express deeply those ideas and emotions are played out through some original writing and an array of colourful characters bringing this dark little tale fully to life. A great story.