by Peter Benson
Publisher: Alma Books
Review: Megan Taylor
Isabel’s Skin starts, as so much great gothic fiction does, with an invitation to the reader to hear the narrator’s confession.
I know what I have seen and will tell you about the places I have been, and how they have brought me to this place and state, but that is all I will tell you. There are some things I like to be private about, and I will be.
This retrospective framework is the tantalising equivalent of pulling an armchair to the hearthside before the ghost story begins, and despite the protestations of reticence by protagonist, David Morris, the novel’s first pages rapidly grow dark with a foreshadowing that nonetheless barely hints at the madness to come...
Her name could chime, and when you are so lonely and you pull her image from an envelope and stare at it in the middle of the night you know she was the love of your life and you will never forget her. You can smell her skin, the skin that hurt so much, but then the smell passes. It has gone, and before you have a chance, you find yourself screaming in the night and wailing into the day.
The gothic promise continues as we’re transported back to the novel’s true opening, with Morris, a then eager, but sheltered young book valuer, arriving at the remote Somerset home of a deceased Lord to catalogue his rare library. As might be expected, Morris’s journey is satisfyingly interrupted by the abandonment of his horse-drawn cab driver and then the gloomy warnings of suspicious locals – “there’s bad things in Ashbrittle. Crawling things. Evil”. And once settled at Belmont Hall, the sinister elements only keep skulking closer as Morris encounters the grieving and aggrieved housekeeper Miss Watson, with her closely guarded passions and her fears , and then eccentric neighbour, Professor Hunt, ‘a wild, odd’ reclusive scientist, with ‘cunning’ eyes and a shady past.
Throughout, the novel’s sense of threat, suspense and underlying bleak beauty is brilliantly enhanced by Benson’s evocative descriptions.
The moon was swollen, and its full light gave the land a flat, endless look. The wood was a rash across the side of the hill, and the tops of the trees gashed the skyline. The cats were prowling and ran from me as I crossed the drive and jumped the gate into the orchard, and then I was under the apple trees and past the chicken coop. The hens scratched and rustled their wings. A fox was near. I smelt it and as I turned my nose to the scent, I heard a howl.
There is a shivering power to the atmosphere Benson maintains with his haunting settings and as a gothic tale, ‘Isabel’s Skin’ is certainly finely wrought, even before the reader is introduced to Isabel herself, first experienced as a screaming, hidden prisoner...
But while Benson has created a triumphant example of gothic storytelling, his novel also manages to offer more. Alongside this sensational account of revelations and rescues and helpless pursuit, runs the gentler exploration of Morris’s relationship with his father, an overbearing parson who ‘believed beauty was the work of the devil, grey was the colour of God, and coffee was drunk by heathens’ . This relationship keenly reflects the novel’s Edwardian era, and the way that Morris escapes its repression is sensitively developed. And ironically, it is the horror of his experiences too, the way in which Isabel’s secret tears his world and faith apart, that finally teaches him how to fully live.
Themes of rebirth and transformation – particularly the transformative possibilities of love – are deeply woven through the narrative. As a love story, it is truly unique and effective, and it is this element (perhaps more than the wonderful gothic reworking or even Benson’s stunning prose) that has remained with me long after turning the last page. Isabel’s Skin is a beautiful , curious hybrid of a book. It is the first novel I’ve read by Peter Benson, but it certainly won’t be the last.