Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Features Writer
7:36 AM 17th February 2024

Apathy Is The Easy Choice: The Seven Skins Of Esther Wilding By Holly Ringland

A black swan falls out of the sky causing Esther Wilding to pull over, as her windscreen shatters. Having witnessed the incident, Tina Turner approaches and wants to help. Confused by this bizarre opening to a novel? I’m not surprised, but things, especially Tina Turner, are not always as they seem.

Esther is on her way to her sister’s memorial. Aura walked into the sea a year ago. Her shoes and dress were later found on the shore and Aura has not been seen since. The police eventually had to close down the search and the family never got their answers. Aura loved the eighties (there are plenty of references throughout, for other eighties’ lovers) and that’s the theme for the memorial – hence Tina Turner’s appearance, or at least Nin, Aura’s best friend, dressed as she was once before, on a memorable night out with Aura. Have you ever had a friend ‘till the rain bows, the kitchen sinks, the butter flies and the water falls’? I loved this description of ‘the heady joy of friendship’. Like ‘selkies’ – everyone should have one. Read the novel to understand.

The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding is a beautiful story about loss, grief, sisterhood, family and forgiveness, underpinned with shimmering layers of age-old stories and rituals from indigenous Australia and Scandinavia.

Give yourself time to let the narrative envelop you, allow it to course through your veins so that you can immerse yourself in this tale of intrigue, hurt and emotion. A family is devastated by the disappearance of their daughter and sister. The mood is ethereal, bohemian, with ‘purple punch in plastic yellow cups’, as old friends gather – ‘people you once knew who once knew you’, with their memories and shared signs and symbols.

If the first few chapters of this novel seem otherworldly, there is a more tangible narrative to come.
Esther’s relationship with her mother, Freya, has always been strained. To Esther, Freya always appeared to prefer Aura, as if they shared some kinship denied to Esther, and now Freya seems to prefer spending time in her tattoo studio where she supports other women in their quest to own their skin, and plays her favourite Fleetwood Mac albums, with Stevie Nicks singing at full volume, rather than cosying up with Esther. Fortunately, Esther is closer to her father, Jack, with their shared love of astronomy and Space Club but he still runs along the shore every night, hoping to catch a glimpse of his lost daughter and Aura’s disappearance has widened, still further, the gulf between parents and their younger offspring. Esther has dropped out of university and is not entirely honest about her life. She has fallen into a bitter hole of resentment, sorrow and loss. In truth, Esther is a mess and just occasionally, my sympathy for her runs out as she repeatedly seeks refuge in alcohol and casual sex and considers no one but herself. It is often said, however, that you have to hit rock bottom before you can start to rise to the surface, breathe fresh air and find a way to cleanse yourself of your grief. Esther is certainly heading for rock bottom.

This novel is immersed in symbolism and ritual, folklore and tradition and advises us that it is unwise to ignore what our ancestors have to say. Tattoos are messages: personal, secret and uplifting. If the first few chapters of this novel seem otherworldly, there is a more tangible narrative to come.

I always admired a gentleman I knew who inherited his mother’s diaries, with strict instructions that they should be burnt without a page being read – he honoured her wishes and never knew what they contained. The journal of a young girl who has gone missing, however, is a different matter and when Freya finds Aura’s journal, the family share its contents, in the hope of understanding what happened to her. As a child, she was happy and carefree, the adored older sister, but something changed and she became more serious. She went travelling as a happy, well-adjusted young woman and returned ‘hollow and lost’, uncommunicative. Bewildered, with no understanding of what had happened to their bright and lively daughter, the family hope to find answers in her journal and Freya and Jack ask Esther to follow in her sister’s footsteps to see if she can discover the truth using the clues it contains. Unwilling, then uncertain, before finally agreeing, Esther leaves Tasmania for Copenhagen and so, finally, the story begins.

If the narrative is drawn out, it has to be, because the reader must share Esther’s frustration, but it is worth pursuing to the end as she learns the value of bold choice...
Esther, as much if not more than her parents, needs to find closure if she is to cope with ‘the endlessness of living without her sister’. She wakes up in the room where Aura stayed, in the house of Abelone, a cousin of Freya’s. As she follows the breadcrumbs left for her, this journey of discovery takes her on to the Faroe Islands where she unearths more secrets than she could imagine – and finds a family who welcome her as one of their own.

This novel is rich in folklore; traditional stories weave new meaning into Aura’s life. Esther needs to find out the meaning of the seven tattoos which Aura had; lines, written both in her journal and on her body, from the seven tales which drove her. Of course, any journey of discovery becomes as much a journey of self-discovery and that takes time. Time to find the courage to discover and then accept truths, to overcome guilt and ultimately, to find peace. If the narrative is drawn out, it has to be, because the reader must share Esther’s frustration, but it is worth pursuing to the end as she learns the value of bold choices – at least ‘you don’t die wondering’ - and the fact that you only find your limits when you go too far. Some of the truths and some of the guilt are common to many and the ultimate sense of peace, if not finality, is welcome.

The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding is published by Legend Press