Isabel's Skin by Peter Benson

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Isabel's Skin by Peter Benson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very awkward book to review, as it certainly holds much that is memorable in its pages, and is so close to succeeding in its intentions, but ultimately falls short of greatness.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 250 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Alma Books
ISBN: 9781846882951

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David Morris is a book trader and valuer in some indeterminate Victorian year when he is given the job of perusing a great and valued collection held in a rich house in rural Somerset. One can guess – especially given the mood that leaps off these pages from the first and never relents – that something might go wrong, just him and the house's sole servant and her cats. But the clues build when we find just how much she dislikes a neighbour – who seems a decent enough fellow, living in seclusion, and culture and intellect wise the only equal to Morris for his short working holiday. But whose unusual behaviour can Morris trust – and who is Isabel?

There's very little one can say about the plot of this book, however rich and deep it is. It is a story whose discovery should be savoured. Everything is present and correct, from the Hammer-style warnings from the rural yokels about the goings-on in the big house, to the many gaps in people's pasts that have to be filled in. Beyond the plot, to repeat, there is the mood, and this is unequivocally fine, given to us with Morris's first person narration, so clear and in keeping. One is instantly reminded of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill with the learned professional going to the rural house and possibly finding more than he could ever fear, but the book is clever enough to depart from all such gothic precedents and, without forcing too much modernity on us, plough its own furrow.

And in a world where the romance in gothic romance has all but disappeared, it is pleasing to see a respect for it brought back so sincerely. Our narrator, being a cultured man, can describe anything with tenderness and care, whether it be his own awkward upbringing, the view across the landscape or the love of his life. In fact he is possibly too able to describe things, reproducing a sort of synaesthesia when opening rare books and finding emotions, scents and loveliness in the pages of non-fiction classics, or hearing someone's cracking voice as the sound of paint peeling off the hull of a beached boat. But this is the only thing that gets anywhere near being laboured – even the sense evoked early on of the impoverished rural landscape, full of floodwater and diseased farm animals, remains in the background and does not engulf the mood of things.

Ultimately, however, there will be those who take against this book, and things in it I cannot really talk too openly about. If you're looking for something of a gothic crime such as keeping a prior wife in the attic, the crime as such here is more visually dramatic, and despite what I said about modernity, does strike one as a bit out of place – especially if you read the health pages of certain newspapers. And there is a sense in the end of the plot being not quite as well sustained as the character and mood of the piece. It is the old-fashioned approach of having a major and dark obstacle in the way of light, science and passion, but possibly the science is too off-kilter, the dark too bleak and the light too, well, light. In the end the feeling is one of having read many memorable scenes, and the presence of a great imagination, but one whose technique does not quite match ambition.

Still, as earlier Benson books I read (I loved A Lesser Dependency, for its urgency, sense of place and, of course, of justice) proved, the man can write, and I don't want to mark this book down as a love/hate offering. That polarity, if it ever exists, does not do so here. This is a firmly respectable read, and I shall remember a lot about it the other side of many other books. So I'm grateful for the publishers for having sent us a review copy.

If you really did want a similar story in a much more modern gothic, I loved Tarantula: The Skin I Live In by Thierry Jonquet.

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