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James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 1st May 2023
arts

Going Viral - Part Two: Liam Brown’s Skin

 
Skin is the fourth novel by British writer Liam Brown. A plague is ravaging the globe, and the populace is forced into quarantine for survival. Interestingly, in an author’s note towards the end of the book, Brown reveals that the story was inspired by an episode in his own life in which he was hospitalised for a strange skin condition that very nearly proved fatal. I read Skin post-influenza, in conjunction with José Saramago’s Blindness, and in hindsight, the timing could’ve been better. Reading another pandemic-themed fiction directly after Saramago’s outing felt like contracting flu a second time, mere days after recovering from my initial bout!

Conversely, the government of Skin handles its pandemic better in many ways.
And yet there was an attraction there, a sheer need to read this story, not dissimilar to the way so many people picked up viral thrillers during the Covid pandemic. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘Too seldom do we have the joy, the exquisite delight of ruining what’s beautiful’ (from The Flies, 1943). By proxy, authors can fulfil our base desire to see the world crumble, and apocalypse-themed reads are enjoying a surge in popularity at present, particularly the subgenre of YA dystopian fiction. Also, the likes of Blindness and Skin have never been more relatable, particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19, now that so many of our real-life experiences mirror those of fiction. Skin hits closer to home than Blindness, however, in that it was written in 2019, the time of our nascent coronavirus crisis. The parallels are uncanny – be it the culture of mask-wearing, the race for a vaccine, or the way the virus wasn’t taken seriously at first: ‘After all, hadn’t there been scares like this before? Bird flu. Swine flu. SARS … All hype and no teeth’. Indeed, many of us never believed Covid-19 would reach our shores, having been teased with the Black Death countless times before. But then it came, it saw, it conquered. Conversely, the government of Skin handles its pandemic better in many ways. There are no ‘partygate’ scandals or questionable PPE contracts; fact and fiction part ways here.

The populace is stricken with the ‘PH1N2(C) virus’, which is transmissible through skin contact with other skin cells in the atmosphere. The virus is visible to a degree, described as a ‘deadly dust that coats everything’, thus rendering it all the more terrifying, for we can at least feign ignorance of a danger we can’t see.

‘All good thrillers have to isolate their heroes if the threat is really going to hit’.
Some semblance of social order has been re-established, however, in the wake of this pernicious outbreak. Survivors, including our protagonists, the Allen family, are seen to be living in a state of perpetual lockdown, with food parcels delivered daily. Women also volunteer their ova periodically to a government research programme as it perseveres in finding a cure. (Handmaid’s Tale vibes here!).

Our principal protagonist, Angela Allen, is permitted to leave the confines of her apartment and enter the remains of the city as part of a neighbourhood watch scheme, recording information. This functions as a plot device, for as the writer Sarah Dunant notes in her introduction to Jamaica Inn, ‘All good thrillers have to isolate their heroes if the threat is really going to hit’.

Angela dons a hazmat suit, resembling Z for Zacharia’s John Loomis, and discovers the outside world in a state of degradation – abandoned vehicles, deserted streets, and empty office buildings. She takes her volunteer work seriously at first, adhering sedulously to the guidelines and observing decontamination requirements upon her return. But one evening, whilst reviewing some film footage, she detects someone living off-grid without PPE. She sees this as a sign of hope. Someone is immune to the plague! Or is it someone in need? How is this person living exactly? She isn’t sure about her motives, but knows she has to find out more. Against her better judgement, she decides to break the rules and embark upon an unauthorised extracurricular trip back into the city to satisfy her curiosity. And then, alea jacta est!

Angela discovers a young man, Jazz, living outside the system and suffering no ill effects. She becomes fascinated by him, marvels at his ability to survive and speculates as to whether his DNA might hold the cure to the plague: ‘This was a man who might very possibly hold the key to saving the human race’. To this end, Jazz is presented as a holy saviour. We even learn that he is building a grand model of a boat, which is symbolically Biblical in itself, casting him as a surrogate Noah figure who will supposedly steer her to salvation, although he later admits said boat will never float! Actually, Jazz is an ardent recluse, determined to remain on the periphery and resistant to all attempts to reintroduce him to society. Defeated, Angela leaves him and returns home, only to find he’s hoodwinked her, stolen her video camera and with it all proof of his existence, thus compelling her to make a repeat trip to redress the situation.

It’s only a matter of time before Angela’s unsanctioned trips back and forth precipitate a crisis: she tears her suit, exposing herself to contamination, and falls ill. Jazz, however, is munificent and takes care of her. A bond develops between them, and they become close. Her true objective, she finally realises, was to address her feelings of isolation and to satisfy her need for human contact. Her world had already been turned upside down by the ravages of the virus, but the introduction of Jazz goes one step further and sets it on fire.

Indeed, Skin is less a novel about the harmful biological effects of a contagion; instead, its focus is more upon the psychological repercussions of lockdown. The policy, though essential for physical wellbeing, has proven inimical to mental health. Whereas our lockdown had periods of surcease, the lockdown of Skin is continuous, and the Allen family are collectively suffering from cabin fever. Angela even becomes nostalgic for the mundane, be it a meeting with her former boss or the scrum of a packed train journey, just to rekindle a sense of how things used to be. Yes, the Allen family are safe and well at home, but they live in separate rooms, never making physical contact. They’re mere walls apart, yet it may as well be a million miles: ‘I stared at each of the closed doors … It seemed impossible that I could be standing so close to each of them and yet be so far away’.

Skin’s final chapters go cyberpunk, which is a bit of a gear shift but not an abrupt one...
The Allen family represents the deterioration of the human spirit and the breakdown of family relations in microcosm. Husband and wife communicate by text (and barely at that), and terse exchanges are held with their children via Zoom: ‘The only thing that ever connected us was Wi-Fi’. As parents, they can no longer parent. When their children have had enough, they simply disconnect.

The parents work remotely, the children study online. The lockdown is arguably worse for the latter, stunting their emotional growth and limiting their life experiences – an experience shared by our student population when they were confined to their accommodation blocks, having the worst time of their lives when it should’ve been the best. Ironically, Angela works for an online dating website, and her husband Colin works in a new field of VR – two industries designed to bring people together, whilst at the same time they’ve both never been more alone. Skin’s final chapters go cyberpunk, which is a bit of a gear shift but not an abrupt one, still working within the thematic confines of the story and sharpening the theme of isolation. It is intimated that Colin’s work in VR will lead to still greater isolation, with people abandoning reality altogether and retreating into private cyberspaces.

Skin isn’t an action-packed ride, nor are there detailed descriptions of society in its various stages of collapse. It is tautly written, however. Rather than petering out, the pacing intensifies as we near the story’s denouement. The finale does leave a few character arcs hanging though, such as Angela’s relationship with Jazz. Several plot lines remain unresolved, not least the fate of the virus. Whereas in Blindness the survivors regain their sight, the virus presumably having run its course, Skin sees no such closure. In this sense, Skin is a truer reflection of our recent times. For many, the spectre of Covid-19 still lingers. ‘I don’t really think things are going to get better’, Angela reflects – a sentiment many of us no doubt shared at some point. For those, there is now light at the end of the tunnel.



Skin is published by Legend Press.