Skin Deep by Liz Nugget | Compelling psychological drama

The title may be Skin Deep but there is nothing superficial about the characters in Liz Nugent’s third novel. 

The story opens with Cordelia Russel in a room where she has just murdered somebody and is wondering when rigor mortis will set in.

Born on a remote Irish island, Cordelia has been living on the French Riviera for twenty-five years, passing herself off as an English socialite. But her luck has run out. And we find out why as her story slowly unfolds over the coming chapters.

Like Liz Nugent’s earlier novels — Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait  Skin Deep is dark. Cordelia is not a likeable character but slowly you come to understand at least some of the reasons why she behaves as she does. And those reasons go back to her early life on the island, particularly her relationship with her father and the expectations he encouraged during her childhood — expectations grounded in myth and dark storytelling.

There are a lot layers to explore in this novel — island life with its hardship, secrets and tight community, family jealousies, betrayal, myth, charity, home, retribution, the elements of fire and water, earth and the mercurial nature of Cordelia herself.

This is carefully crafted novel where the threads are well interwoven and expertly tied together in a satisfying conclusion.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath | A topical read

Patrick McGrath showed up on the programme for the 2018 Festival of Writing and Ideas at Borris talking madness and menace with historian Roy Foster.  While I didn’t make it to the session entitled, ‘Gothic or What?’, I made a mental note to check out McGrath’s book, The Wardrobe Mistress. This week, I finally got around to reading it.

Set in post-war Britain in 1947, The Wardrobe Mistress opens with the funeral of actor Charles Grice. The mourners include Grice’s wife, Joan, who lends McGrath’s book its title, and their daughter, Vera.

Joan and Vera are the main characters in this novel along with actor Frank Stone, who who attracts Joan’s attention when he takes over her husband’s Malvolio character.

For the first 100 pages or so of this novel, I found it hard to connect with the characters and plot. There’s a point where Frank Stone,   “suddenly glimpsed that who he was — his very self — was as nothing.” That line seemed to me to sum up the opacity of the characters (at least as I experienced them) in the early part of the novel. But the pace does pick up and I found the second half of the book a faster and more interesting read.

The Wardrobe Mistress is topical at the moment in that Mosley’s fascist followers feature in the story line. I liked the historical references and also the way that McGrath handles the Grice’s daughter Vera’s role in The Duchess of Malfi.  But would I recommend The Wardrobe Mistress? I’m not sure. Probably ‘yes’ for anyone interested in the rise of right wing thinking after the war or for anyone interested in theatre or even for those who like a ghost story. 

It’s published by Penguin. I read a copy from my local public library. (Thank you Wicklow County Council Library Service).

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel | A dark but funny read

Hilary Mantel came to my notice back in 2012 when I fell in love with Wolf Hall. Since then, I’ve read a few of her earlier novels  including A Change of Climate and  Beyond Black. But, so far, nothing really matches Wolf Hall for me.

Beyond Black is about a medium called Alison Hart and her business manager, Colette.  Alison plies her trade in towns outside London, working with audiences and passing on messages from their dead relatives. She avoids the capital because she doesn’t like to work with ethnic communities who believe in reincarnation.

There are a lot of charlatans in Alison’s line of work, but she really does see dead people. She’s haunted by them, and not in a good way. She can’t get away from the dead and she sees things that her clients are better off not knowing.

This isn’t Hammer House of Horror scariness — if anything it’s more disturbing — because the dead continue to have the same traits they had while living. “You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy,” Alison tells Colette.

So Beyond Black is dark — particularly where Alison is haunted by the men her mother was involved with during Alison’s childhood. But it’s also funny, not least when Princess Diana puts in an appearance.

To some extent, Beyond Black reminds me of Will Self’s How the Dead Live, although I found Self’s book a faster and funnier read.

Beyond Black is published by Fourth Estate. Thanks to Wicklow County Council Library Service for the loan of a copy.