Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Titan Books, 2019, p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

Skein Island cover

As readers of Interzone already know, Whitley writes impressively. Here she takes a modern domestic setting and gradually blends it with strange happenings and figures from Ancient Greek myth to make a tale that is always readable and looks at sexual politics from an oblique angle.

On the day she receives an invitation from a dead woman, Marianne Spence has an encounter with a pervert at closing time at the library where she works in Wootton Bassett. The incident prompts Marianne to accept that invitation to the Skein Island of this novel’s title; a retreat for women only, set up after the Second World War by the adventurer Lady Amelia Worthington. The only requirement for beneficiaries is to make a written Declaration of their reasons for visiting, to be kept in the island’s library. Marianne’s mother Vanessa had herself gone to the island seventeen years before – and never returned; prompting Marianne’s father, Arnie, himself to retreat, into moroseness, spending his evenings at The Cornerhouse, a pub with a dubious reputation – and odd goings on in its back room. The ramifications of Marianne’s decision rumble through the novel as husband Dave takes to lying in wait for the pervert to prevent him offending again. Here his path crosses that of Police Community Support Officer, Samantha, who also hopes to catch the offender. The narrative is delivered in two strands which for the most part alternate; a present tense first person chronicle from Marianne’s viewpoint and a third person past tense account focusing on Dave.

Threaded through the initial stages of the novel is the appearance in the narrative of either squares or cubes coloured red, blue, yellow and green and an emphasis on a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, “Each man delights in the work that suits him best.”

The dead woman is a bit of a tease on Whiteley’s part as the invitation was not in fact written by her but by Marianne’s mother to whom Lady Amelia bequeathed the operation on Skein Island. Vanessa tells her the cubes represent the four types of men in the world, heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, corresponding to the four colours. In the library Marianne reads Lady Amelia’s Declaration in which she described looking for the Throne of Zeus in a cave on Crete and instead found a monstrosity which caused her male companions to rip each other to pieces. Amelia tamed it by telling it her life story, turning it into a statue which she took back to the island and locked underground to keep it away from men, naming it Moira after the Greek fates. Its appetite for the stories which bind it is fed by reading the Declarations to it. Marianne encounters Moira in the basement and recognises its strangeness. Her roommates remain unconvinced, but the possibility it was all illusion is not supported by the rest of the narrative. Things go awry when in his attempts to find Marianne, Dave finally gets to the island and his presence there leads to a demolition and Moira’s disappearance.

Thereafter, in the wider world, men’s behaviour, already somewhat overbearing, changes; their tendencies towards being heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, to “protect” women, becoming exaggerated. Marianne reasons that Moira’s constraint seems to be necessary for equable relations between the sexes so Marianne’s task becomes to find Moira and restore “her” to captivity on the island.

On the face of it Skein Island has an explicitly feminist perspective but Marianne’s thought that Moira’s existence means men are meant to be more important than women sits oddly with that. However, “When a hero walks into a story, he doesn’t do as he’s told,” is an entirely consistent proposition. In this context the relationship between Dave and policewoman Samantha also struck a discordant note.

As to Moira: it may be a rather well-worn trope but for supernatural beings to exert influence on human behaviour is a problematic feature of a fantasy since that automatically removes agency – and responsibility – from its characters. Characters’ behaviours should not be exculpated in this way. They can also be perceived as dancing too much to the author’s tune rather than behaving as if independently.

I should add that, completely unheralded, either in the blurb or the title page, and taking up 35 pages here, is the inclusion in the book of a novelette, The Cold Smoke Declaration, a ghost story partly set on Skein Island. Value for money then.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:-“the physical cracks that lead to emotional ones” (context suggests ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’,) zipper (zip,) “to not have to field questions,” (not to have to; many instances of ‘to not’ rather than ‘not to’,) “a chemical brand that irritates my nostrils” (this is of a washing powder, what does Whiteley think any other brands of washing powder contain apart from chemicals? The phrase ‘chemical free’ is a nonsense.) “There are a number of caves in Crete” (strictly, there is a number,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) sunk (sank,) fit (fitted – used on the next line!) smoothes (smooths,) “the eldest girl had thrown back her shoulders and sang to the vaulted ceiling” (that ‘had’ carries on so the next verb ought to be ‘sung’,) “it would be impossible to spit it into sentences” (split, I think,) “exclamation points” (exclamation marks,) “the lay of the island” (it wasn’t a tune; lie of the island.) In the novelette, “a strong draft” (draught.)

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script