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.