Skin Deep by Laura Wilkinson is a thoughtful, difficult book to read about modern-day notions of beauty, ugliness and society’s fascination with appearance. At times it made me feel uncomfortable. It is the sort of book which you find yourself thinking about long after you have finished reading it. It will make you think about your own attitudes to others, do you unconsciously leap to judgement based on their outward appearance, and how much do you worry about your own looks?
Hulme, Manchester, 1984. Students Diana and Linda start university, Diana is studying art, Linda art history. Diana is keen to make her mark for something she can do with her hands, rather than how she looks. A former child model, people stare at her in the street such is her beauty. Via Jim, Linda’s boyfriend, Diana meets Cal, a four-year old boy neglected by his drug addict parents. He has a severe facial disfigurement and is kept from sight. He does not know a normal life. ‘Normal’ is a word which crops up often. In the child, Diana finds someone dealing with a mirror image of her own challenge: as Cal hides his face from strangers, Claire tried to avoid people ogling her beauty. I found the beginning a little slow and the story takes off once Diana is inspired by Cal to create a different kind of art.
Throughout time, artists have had muses. Cal becomes Diana’s muse, unwittingly at first when he is a child. The book treads a difficult, uncomfortable line. Diana loves Cal and tries to do the best, but what if her best is wrong? Of course, that is the thought process the author wants the reader to explore. As Diana’s success as an artist grows and Cal becomes a teenager, he starts to resent being ‘used’. Is she ultimately any different from her mother, Bunny, who forced her to enter beauty competitions, to refuse biscuits because they would make her fat?
The viewpoint switches between Diana and Cal and jumps around in time, particularly in the second half, which was disorientating. The main voice is Diana’s. I found her exploitative and unlikeable and would have liked to hear more from the adult Cal and the child Diana. Nonetheless this is a powerful, difficult read with underlying imagery of decay hidden by beauty.
Read more about Laura Wilkinson at her website, and find out which book is her favourite ‘Porridge & Cream’ comfort read.
If you like this, try:-
‘Orphans of the Carnival’ by Carol Birch
‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker
‘The Museum of You’ by Carys Bray
‘Skin Deep’ by Laura Wilkinson [UK: Accent] Buy now
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