Author: Frances Hardinge
Title: A Skinful of Shadows
“Twenty-seven months is long enough for a place to seep into your bones. Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.
Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. […] Terror is tiring, and difficult to keep up indefinitely, so sooner or later it must be replaced by something more practical.
One day you wake up in your prison, and realize that it is the only real place. Escape is a dream, a lip-service prayer that you no longer believe in.”
A Skinful of Shadows is my first Hardinge book, but definitely not the last. Dark and atmospheric, full of loss and anger, horror and hope, this novel transports the reader into the 17th century Britain in the throes of its first Civil War. And while the actual battles, army marches and skirmishes remain on the fringes of the story, the very acute human ugliness always accompanying such conflicts is very much in the center of the novel, making the life of our young protagonist a rather difficult endeavor, fraught with danger, ill-timed happenstance and simple callousness and greed. But fear not, all is not as bleak and dark as it may seem from my introduction; and we have Makepeace Felmotte to thank for this. Makepeace (what an amazing Puritan name!) is a young girl gifted – or cursed – with the ability to see and interact with ghosts. The exact manner of this interaction I will leave to curious readers to discover; suffice to say that there are more things one can do with ghosts than I imagined, and all of them are rather creepy 😉 But despite that strange family trait, which drags her into danger more times that she can count, Makepeace is an inherently optimistic creature; indomitable would be a perfect word to describe her, were she not too humble to accept such aggrandizing epithets. But she is both, and more: humble and indomitable, steadfast, and full of empathy, ability for strategic planning and very un-youthlike patience.
Having read A Skinful of Shadows just prior to Mexican Gothic I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities between the two novels; a plucky, resilient, young heroine, finding within herself more strength and resolve than she ever expected; a horrifying grandfather-figure, lifted straight from the worst nightmares; an acutely felt lack of parents who should serve as guardians, but were sadly, inevitably absent from their daughters’ lives; a feeling of a very human, fragile and delicate connection with another, without much romance. That last trait is particularly refreshing in A Skinful of Shadows, as the relationship described in such a loving detail is one between siblings; another, with a ghost who behaves much like a tantrum-prone three-year-old with superhuman strength, and some more, in which our Makepeace must shed the last vestiges of childhood to become a partner and a guide to lost souls.
A Skinful of Shadows successfully eludes genre or age divisions, filling a niche represented by titles such as Garth Nix’s Sabriel or Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown: suitable both for precocious kids and for adults young-at heart, and with a promise of interesting discussions in between. It is more realistic in its depiction of violence than most books considered modern children literature, and yet thematically aligned with this label, as it’s similarly focused on the themes of empowerment and growth of a very young protagonist. Makepeace must find her way in the world, and literally make peace with herself and the ghosts of her past and present. There are some truly creepy moments in the story, and though none require blood or gore to achieve their desired effect, there is a bit of that as well. There’s violence, even from those who should be above reproach, and abuse, and a bit of despair. The predators can assume many shapes and guises, and the predators in human skin who are hunting Makepeace are suitably dangerous, ruthless and canny to send a shiver down the reader’s spine. And I haven’t even described the ghosts, which add a truly horrific element to the story – if there’s a literary category of horror for children, A Skinful of Shadows would definitely fit in 😉
And yet, there is hope and understanding at the heart of A Skinful of Shadows, and willful, conscious acceptance of the world as it is: not perfect, far from it, but still capable of being transformed into a better place. The story is propelled forward by critical events, but in between them moves steadily, and a bit ploddingly at times, at a reasonable (very Makepeace) pace. Don’t expect non-stop action – a lot happens, but in fits and starts, much like in real life. There are adventures to be had and adversities to be overcome, but the protagonists quickly learn that no victory comes without cost and certain truths about oneself are the most difficult to accept.
Written in a deceptively simple language, Hardinge’s book maintains the flowing cadence of an orally transmitted story, beguiling the readers and keeping them interested even in the slow, meandering parts of the story. There are also moments of surprising depth and poetic soulfulness of this book, glinting here and there like a much-welcome ray of sunlight between the trees.
All in all, I am happy to recommend A Skinful of Shadows as an intriguing, subtly intricate creation in the unique and somewhat neglected category of YAH (young-at-heart) 😊. Lastly, if you can, avoid reading the blurb; it reveals too much of the plot, taking away some of the pleasure of surprise.