In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

“Here’s the thing about moments. The world can change in them and people can die in them and just one is all it takes to make a mistake that will last you a lifetime.”

In The Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker stole my composure and refuses to shake its dreamscape from my bones. After whinging about The Pause not meeting my expectations, this book spirals so far past surreal, it bypasses the sublime completely and exits somewhere out west where the baked earth meets the Milky Way. Sadly the CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers 2016 didn’t meet my expectations. In The Skin of a Monster made the longlist but not the shortlist. It did win the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel 2015.

The story unravels in Collector, a small town stricken by the tragedy of Alice’s twin sister taking a gun to school and killing seven classmates, then herself. Three years later Alice is stuck looking like a killer, living with the hatred of everyone in town, her guilt of that terrible day and why she thinks her larger-than-life sister did what she did.

The chapters alternate between Alice and a strange boy called Lux. The two live in parallel versions of Collector: Alice’s “real” town and Lux’s nightmare version where monsters rule the nights and existence is violent and precarious. Alice’s sister didn’t die in this world, she is Kell the school-girl monster.

Somehow Alice and Kell swap bodies and worlds. Alice has no idea what’s going on when she finds herself literally in the skin of a monster, her sister. When she works this out, she also realises Kell is in Alice’s skin in the real Collector, doing who knows what.

“History wouldn’t repeat itself. That I was just being paranoid. That fixating on something so morbid, so exquisitely unlikely, was simply a product of trauma. That the nightmare of what you did playing out all over again was not a rational fear.”

Unless nightmares are real and Kell is the very worst kind of monster. Alice has to get home to her world before something happens to the already traumatized townsfolk. Unfortunately the nightmare monsters and Lux have other ideas.

“The precise moment it all went to shit, for the second time.”

When too many coincidences pile up, they stop being coincidences. Lux is hiding something but, like Alice, doesn’t quite understand everything that happened in the past or what’s going on now in this very scary world. With the narrators confused, the reader has no chance, which is a good thing. Finding out bit by bit exactly how these tangled threads connect is delicious and horrific and mind-bending. The story reverberates through my synapses and won’t leave the darkest corners of my subconscious. I can almost touch the unbearable sorrow seeping from every character.

“They buried the seven kids you killed. They put them under the ground, out of sight, so all that was left were the shiny memorials. So that no one could see how everything was still sinking into the holes they’d left behind.”

Alice’s chapters are written to her dead sister, an homage to her grief and guilt. This makes half the book written in second person point of view. In The Skin of a Monster is the second book I’ve read recently using the pronoun You. The other was Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & illustrated by Maira Kalman. Both books approach the incorporation of second person narrative in different and very clever ways. I felt the narrator talking directly to me as I read. I want to read more in this unusual style. And can it be done when You isn’t dead or gone?

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I realised Alice never says her sister’s name. I flicked back through trying to find one, but she’s only ever You. I love the craft around how writers do this, I’ve tried and it’s hard. You is a clever solution. I noticed the reference to Elephant. That movie and Gus Van Sant’s work in general haunts me as much as In The Skin of a Monster.

Kathryn Barker with In the Skin of a Monster
Kathryn Barker with In the Skin of a Monster

The cover design by Josh Durham’s Design by Committee is as consummate as the words (really not by committee). Mentored by my favourite designer W.H. Chong, Josh Durham’s got the goods. His design was shortlisted for the 2016 Tractor Best Designed Young Adult Book. As usual I think it should have won, but what do I know? Josh Durham has this to say about In The Skin of a Monster.

“The protagonist lives in the shadow of a murderous sibling. I wanted to capture a sense of hidden identity and desperation with an image that had a in-your-face physicality and a subtle fantasy element… I created the artwork in Photoshop out of bits and pieces of budget stock photography and knitted in a landscape and sense of place. I hand drew the typography with a dramatic scrawl to match the drama of the cover artwork.”

The girl shielding her face from the media frenzy and life in general. The outback town desolate and parched, an analog signal losing reception. I didn’t notice the wings until after I finished reading. Hand drawn typography, scratched out of the dirt, carved into her skin.

I still don’t know if it’s worse when people assume you’re good because of how you look or bad because of how you look.

what shall we read tonight?
what shall we read tonight?