Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson
Peter Benson is one of those underrated British authors that never write the same book twice. Each novel is different. I’ve only read one of his before: that was Odo’s Hanging about the commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry published in the mid 1990s. Lately he’s been best known for Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, a contemporary novel about lads and weed. With Isabel’s Skin, he’s doing something different again – a gothic tale set in Edwardian England.
The story is narrated by David Morris, a quiet man who describes himself thus:
I used to be a book valuer. I was employed by an auction house. I was trusted, respected and pleased. I lived in London in comfortable rooms, and I had money in the bank. I lived alone, and although I had friends and acquaintances, I was not close to any of them. I had brown hair and blue eyes. … My rooms were on the top floor of a house close by Highbury Fields. Beyond, to the north and west, spread the swelling slums of the city and their cloaks and dresses of smoke and filth. I did not know these places, and I tried to keep them at a distance. I confess my ignorance, though my ignorance was not bred of disinterest. I believed the ragged should live in the minds of the fortunate, but I was still – and thought I would always be – a top-floor man.
David is asked to go to rural Somerset to value the library of a recently deceased book collector. From the moment he gets off the train and finds a ride to get to the remote village of Ashbrittle, you know that we are in Gothic spine-chiller territory. It happens every time someone comes from the city to the country in this type of novel.
Abandoned by the carter, he’s warned by an urchin not to go to Ashbrittle, but finally reaches Belmont House, now closed up with just the housekeeper in residence. He discovers the library is full of rare books of great value, but must do his cataloguing in gloom – Lord Buff-Orpington never opened the window shutters. This doesn’t bother David, for he is soon in reveries over the volumes in the collection. So we’ve added the house and house-keeper to the Gothic equation. Where’s the ghost, or prisoner in the attic? Benson is not going to be that obvious.
It’s not until David goes out for a walk, (inexorably drawn in the wrong direction of course), that things happen. He meets Professor Hunt who lives close by, and they have a civil conversation. Morris asks the Professor what he does.
‘I do not do, young man. I work. I create.’
‘My apologies. What do you create, Prefessor Hunt?’
‘I would not tell you, even if I could. But siffice to say it is a marvel.’ I thought he was going to continue, but he stopped suddenly, looked straight into my eyes and shool his head.
‘I see,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘you do not. How could you?’
‘How could you even begin to see?’
‘I didn’t mean to imply…’
‘I am sure you didn’t.’
‘… that I know…’
‘Of course you didn’t,’ he said and he turned, bowed politely, took a couple of steps back, and before I had the chance to ask him anything else, he signalled the end of the meeting with a raised hand and said ‘It was very interesting to meet you. It’s good to talk to someone with something to say. Too many of the people round here are idiots. Idiots and fools. You cannot talk to any of them…’ And then he was gone and I was left standing alone.
Morris finds the Professor has dropped his tiepin. Given the excuse to visit him, he sets out after dinner – and this is when he hears a woman screaming in the Professor’s house…
I’ll keep the suspense and won’t tell you any more of substance. You’ll have worked out for yourself already that the Professor is mad, and it goes without saying that Morris will feel compelled to rescue the screaming woman, and the chase will be on – will he fall in love too? …
Morris wasn’t looking for adventure, but when it found him, he rather relished it. If you swap mad professors for spies – you’d have a character in the mould of Buchan’s Richard Hannay (my review of The 39 Steps here), but slightly toned down. Morris’s adventure also causes him to review his relationship with his father, and his own lonely existence. His thoughts are introspective, but suited to the expanse of the landscape that Benson creates.
Isabel’s skin is a quietly affecting gothic tale, it contains all the elements you expect, but is put together in a slightly different way. The prologue has Morris setting the scene of where he ends up before launching into the story of his adventure, beginning with the first passage quoted above. It does take itself a tad seriously, but I rather enjoyed it. (8/10)
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Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson, pub Sept 2013, Alma books paperback, 250 pages.