Well, it has been far too long since I read a Jack O’Connell novel. After really enjoying O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and “Box Nine” about six months earlier, I ended up buying all five of his “Quinsigamond” novels. Then… I got distracted by other books.
Still, after the previous novel I read really amazed me, I needed to read another high-quality book. And, after searching through my book piles, I found the second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1996 novel “The Skin Palace” that I’d planned to read several months ago.
Interestingly, whilst this novel takes place in the same fictional city as O’Connell’s other “Quinsigamond” novels and even contains a few references to events and locations from “Word Made Flesh” (eg: Maisel, The July Sweep etc..), it is a self-contained novel that can be read on it’s own or, as I did, out of the correct “order” of the series.
So, let’s take a look at “The Skin Palace”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a mysterious description of a teenage boy watching a silent film in a cinema. During the film, a bereaved woman enters the theatre and sits in front of the boy. She breaks into tears during the film. The boy mistakenly believes that she is profoundly affected by what she is seeing on the screen.
Three years later, a couple called Sylvia and Perry are having a romantic evening at a drive-in theatre when Perry, a lawyer, mentions that he’s got a raise and wants to buy Sylvia something. Sylvia has seen an advert for a used high-end camera and, being an amateur photographer, she suggests it. Although Perry isn’t keen on the idea, he agrees. The next day, Sylvia visits a dilapidated camera shop in one of the more run-down parts of town and sets into motion a bizarre chain of events.
Meanwhile, local mob boss Hermann Kinsky wants his eighteen-year old son Jakob to join the family business. Although Jakob’s sociopathic cousin Felix has fit into mob life really well and seems to be the logical choice of successor, Hermann wants his nerdy film-obsessed son to be his protege…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a little slow to start and it probably isn’t for everyone, it is amazing. It is this wonderfully surreal, vivid, compelling, atmospheric and unique “film noir”-themed drama novel that somehow manages to be both extremely high-brow and yet rebelliously “edgy” at the same time. This is the kind of novel that makes you think “THIS has artistic merit!“.
Seriously, this book does so much clever stuff. Whether it is the brilliant irony of a story about cinema and photography being told purely through text, or the novel’s many points about the power of images, or the beautiful narration, or the elaborately bizarre locations that you’ll really want to visit, or the fact that you’ll feel like you’ve gained 20 IQ points (and doubled your thinking speed) after a reading session, or the ultra-deep characterisation or even some of the novel’s brilliantly cynical political satire, this surreal hardboiled drama novel is a lot more “high-brow” than you might think 🙂
One of the major themes of this book is the power of images, and this is explored in all sorts of ways. Whether it is a character who was pretty much raised in a cinema, scenes that show how the audience determines the meaning of an image, scenes involving mysterious photographs, a blue movie director with high artistic ambitions, film script-like narrative segments, a bizarre version of “The Wizard Of Oz”, an almost religious focus on traditional film-based cameras etc… This is the kind of book that really makes you think about the hundreds of images we all see every day.
This book is also just as atmospheric as you’d expect a Jack O’Connell novel to be too 🙂 Like in the other O’Connell novels I’ve read, this story takes place in a vaguely New York/New England-style city called Quinsigamond. It’s this slightly run-down, modern film noir city filled with garish neon and quirky old buildings. It really feels like a real place 🙂 Seriously, I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to visit Quinsigamond 🙂
Plus, as befitting settings like this, the novel is also something of a crime/mystery thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, this story has enough suspense, mystery, elaborate criminal schemes, plot twists, cleverly connected storylines etc.. to compare fairly well to traditional hardboiled crime fiction. Even so, the crime-based parts of the story are more of a sub-plot (with the bulk of the novel being about Sylvia’s bizarre detective-like quest to find the original owner of the second-hand camera she found, rather than Jakob’s experience of life in the mob).
The novel also contains some wonderfully cynical political satire too. One sub-plot revolves around two fanatical (and thoroughly hypocritical) political campaign groups trying to shut down an adult theatre. Both groups are, of course, on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum to each other. The fights between these two fanatical political groups and, ultimately, their chilling similarities, is a brilliantly daring and cynical piece of political satire that feels oddly timeless and yet very much of the 1990s at the same time.
In terms of the characters, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 Not only do many of the characters get an astonishing amount of characterisation, but they’re all both realistic enough to be relatable, yet stylised enough to appear dream-like or larger than life. Seriously, the characters are one of the major reasons why this is such a compelling story. One of the best examples of this is how Sylvia and Jakob’s character arcs parallel each other, yet feel different and distinctive enough to really add variety to the story.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is exquisite. Although the novel’s use of the present tense might take a little bit of getting used to, it really helps the story’s many descriptions flow in a way that feels hyper-vivid. Seriously, some descriptive parts of this novel are almost poetic. Best of all, these elaborate descriptions are paired with a more “matter of fact” hardboiled style that helps to keep the story feeling solid. In essence, this novel reads a little bit like a mixture of Dashiell Hammett and William Burroughs or something like that.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things. At 414 pages in length and with a lot of focus on descriptions and characterisation, don’t expect a quick read. Yet, even though this book is a bit slow-paced, it won’t really matter because the story is so vivid and compelling.
As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Whilst the focus on non-digital cameras and cinemas dates the novel a bit, it also lends it a surprisingly timeless “film noir”-like quality. Likewise, whilst this novel does have a small number of rather dated “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a scene that seems to conflate drag queens and transgender people. And don’t get me started on the violence and pronouns in this scene…), most other parts of the novel have aged fairly well and still remain very compelling to this day.
All in all, this is an absolutely excellent novel. Yes, a few parts haven’t aged well and it isn’t for everyone but, if you want an intelligent hardboiled novel with a brilliant atmosphere, a touch of surrealism, fascinating characters, beautiful narration and a story that will actually make you think, then you need to read this novel 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.