BOOK REVIEW: In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker
Allen & Unwin
Paperback, $17.99 AUD
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Three years ago, Alice’s identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She’s struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can’t get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she’s trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school… and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.
This book is part trying to understand the awful things that people do, even those who were closer to you than anyone else.
Is that what it felt like for you when you put the gun into your mouth? When you turned it on yourself after killing the others? When you brought the death toll up to eight, not that your death ever counted? When you pulled the trigger that time were you still not scared? Was it as dull as jumping the goddamn crevice?
Part trying to work out who you are, and moving on from awful things that people see when they look at you.
And just like that he’d raised the forbidden subject. Back home, nobody ever talked about what had happened. That day three years ago – it was like this big, deadly elephant in the room. They’d say it with their eyes and their spit and their hate, but never with actual words. Hearing it out loud, I don’t know whether it was a relief or a new kind of torture. Either way, I’m pretty sure that I was shaking.
And a little bit Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass.
Just for the record, I didn’t have one of those lame ‘Am I dreaming?’ moments. I didn’t pinch myself or rub my eyes like a cartoon character to see if that would fix it. I don’t know why they even put that crap in movies. Just because you can have a dream and not realise you’re dreaming, that doesn’t mean it works in the reverse. When you’re awake and bad things are happening, deep down you always know that it’s for keeps.
And, while Alice is trying to work out how to get home, and still searching for answers inside herself as to why her sister did what she did, the mysterious Lux is keeping an eye on her.
‘I’m Lux,’ I say, to keep her distracted. It’s true in a way. I saw the name on a box of washing detergent that some bored house-wife dreamt up, and figured it was suitably depressing. It’s better than Omo at least, which was my other ready option.
Lux has been in this dreamscape for years, working with his monster best friend, Ivan, to destroy all the evil monsters who want to pop the dreams of children so they can feast on the dream versions of said children. The worst monsters of all are the hundreds of different versions of the “school-girl” monster he has run into over the years. Monsters who look like Alice. Monsters he takes pleasure in killing.
I go to give Ivan the signal for lost, then realise we don’t have one. In all these years, it’s actually never come up. I suppose when all you ever do is track and kill monsters, you don’t really have any destinations as such to misplace.
In the absence of ‘lost’ I just stand there like a fool, saying nothing.
The dreamscape used to be more positive, and hold fewer monsters, but those more pleasant dreams have been left to rot. Everyone has nightmares these days.
Judging by the faded paint and general decay, this is probably one of the old dreams, from back when kids imagined cutesy stuff instead of guns and death and monsters. The sludge is no doubt hiding some adorable sea creature left to fester, which would explain the smell. Adorable is all well and good when Mummy’s there to feed it, but there are no mummies here.
In combining the very serious elements of a school shooting with those of a more fanciful nightmare/dreamscape nature, Barker saves the reader from being too bogged down by the catalyst for the story, but at the same time manages to show grief more fully, including what it can do to our subconscious; how it can manifest, and continue to do so in our dreams, long after the trauma.
Barker’s writing is beautiful and evocative, and the reader can’t help but relate to Alice. Details are slowly revealed throughout the story, in terms of the events around the school shooting as well as the true nature of Lux’s past. This, coupled with the easy, familiar, interesting voices ensure that the reader will have a hard time putting this book down. I devoured it within a day.
In the Skin of a Monster is a story about the measures some people will go to to feel like they’re in control, and the mess they leave behind for their loved ones. It’s about trying to make the best of the truly awful situation and learning to live again, even when you’re wearing the face of a monster.
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