Cards on the table.
I adore Frances Hardinge.
She can, in my humble eyes, do no wrong. I would buy a telephone directory with her name attached to it as an author!
Her Cuckoo Song was a masterpiece. The sort of novel which I wish I had more than my self-imposed five stars to give it. The Lie Tree, likewise, sparkled with wit, intelligence and a compelling cast of characters. It won the Costa Prize in 2015. It is on a par with – in my humble opinion, exceeds – the likes of Phillip Pullman.
These two books set the bar hugely high for Hardinge, impossibly high perhaps. Impossibly high for a normal writer perhaps, but not Hardinge. A Skinful of Shadows is macabre, terrifying, liberating and darkly optimistic. It is a cracking adventure story – with the usual weirdness and supernatural elements which we expect from Hardinge – and explores with insight, sympathy and a keen intelligence the characters and buildings and world she creates. In ways which chime as powerfully resonant to today’s world.
Our main character here is Makepeace who, like Triss in Cuckoo Song, is a lost child struggling to find her own identity and voice; like Faith in The Lie Tree, Makepeace is also a young girl trapped and seeking to escape the claustrophobic confines of the world she finds herself in. In The Lie Tree, it was the rigours of the paternalistic, patriarchal world of nineteeth century England; in A Skinful of Shadows, it is the choking Gothic grip of of the house of Grizehayes – fueled by supernatural gifts – which is itself embroiled in the heady and turbulent world of the English Civil War.
Stolen from and kept ignorant of Grizehayes and the ancient Fellmotte family by her mother, Makepeace finds herself orphaned and at the mercy of gifts or powers or forces which she has no hope of grasping or understanding despite brief lessons from her mother in graveyards and crypts. We learn that, somehow, she is able to – and this is where my words struggle – absorb? contain? co-exist with? – ghosts which she encounters. They are able to be drawn into her, to exist within her. To communicate with her.
The first ghost she encounters is a bear and
as she stood there, Makepeace was unexpectedly struck and overwhelmed by an invisible wave.
A feeling. No, a smell. A reek like blood, autumn woodlands and old damp wool. It was a hot smell. It itched and rasped against her mind like breath. It filled Makepeace’s senses, fogging her vision and making her feel sick.
Ghost, was her one helpless thought. A ghost.
The world swam, and then she barely knew where she was, who she was. She was swallowed by a memory that was not her own.
The sun stung. The reek of the sawdust choked her. There was a terrible pain in her lip, and she could not shape words. Her ears filled with a buzzing drone and a cruel, rhythmic thud. With each thud, something yanked painfully at her mouth. When she tried to flinch away, a red-hot slice of pain cut across her shoulders. She burned with a rage born of agony.
Look at – listen to – the visceral sensual language there. The synaesthesia. It is just gorgeous and powerful and vivid and darkly mysteriously delicious.
The supernatural elements in the novel become perhaps more explicit, more systematized than in her previous books, which had tended to keep the otherworldliness just a touch more enigmatic.
The history also takes a more central role as Makepeace moves from the austerity of the Puritans to the excesses of the Fellmottes to spies playing both sides off against each other. We hear of the same battles just off stage from different points of view and different pamphlets and memories and reporting. Fake news. Partisan reporting. Propaganda. A web of lies and half truths. Through the novel, it might be that Makepeace and the reader learn to distrust any ‘side’ or any allegiance beyond the personal and the human. As the ghosts and shadows mulitply in Makepeace’s head – including Bear, turncoat enemies, and irascible and vitriolic doctors – we see her tender acceptance of the weak and the vulnerable and the lost and the power which these outcasts generate through the tenderness of their strange and unconventional housing arrangements.
The lesson of the book – if such a fabulous fairy tale of a book can be reduced to something as mundane as a lesson – is to accept yourself, to own your own powers and priveleges and vulnerabilities and to be true to yourself. It is in doing this, in celebrating the power of the individual over the ideological, that Makepeace finds her own path.
Once again, somehow, Hardinge has brought to existence a book which has both entertained and endeared and enchanted as it chilled and shocked.
I cannot recommend this book enough – not as a Young Adult book – but just as a book!
Read this if you liked: Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale.
Publisher: MacMillan Children’s Books
Date: 21st September 2017; paperback 3rd May 2018