Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Whiteley, Skein Island (2015)

Aliya Whiteley, Skein Island. Dog Horn Publishing, 2015. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-1-907133-85-5. £10.99.

Reviewed by Valeria Vitale

Skein Island, by acclaimed horror and fantasy author Aliya Whiteley, is a supernatural mystery novel that combines the investigation of uncommon events with the investigation of the characters’ feelings and motivations. The story has three main settings, as well as three different narrative streams, each of them featuring detours and digressions, that merge smoothly towards the end. The first is a small island in British waters, the Skein Island the book is named after, where only women are allowed. The place was bought by an eccentric millionaire who had (apparently) used her means to create and maintain a unique retreat where women could focus solely on reaching that self-awareness, strength, or peace of mind they felt was missing from their current lives; a place without men where women could be absolutely safe. The rich woman would offer, cyclically, free two-week stays at the island to a small number of women, selected from among the many applications received. During these two weeks, the women wouldn’t have to worry about anything but their own well being: everything else would be taken care of by an all-female staff.

Marianne, the protagonist, has a quite conflicting relationship with the place, that continuously moves along the attraction-repulsion spectrum. Her mother went to the island when Marianne was only a child, and never returned to her family afterwards. Understandably, many feelings arise when the young woman receives an invitation to the island, without having even applied for it.

The second narrative path tells what happens to the little town of Allcombe when Marianne leaves for Skein Island; how her father and husband cope with her absence and with the vague fear that she might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The last storyline goes back to how Skein Island was born, what happened to its founder and why she decided to start the entire project. All the three streams slowly unveil their mysterious components, and the reader learns that there is much more than it appears, around a tiny island only inhabited by women.

I was a bit surprised to find out how a book set mostly on a feminist island turned out to be overwhelmingly about men. The author seems to assume that the women in the Skein Island retreat are just eager to talk about their husbands/boyfriends, fathers or sons. Even leaving aside the obvious objection that there are women in love with other women, the fact that some women might devote a substantial part of their thoughts to their sisters, daughters, mothers or female friends doesn’t seem to find much room in the narrative.

In general, I was quite puzzled once I realised that the story I was reading wasn’t going to be particularly “feminist”, not in the way I was expecting it to be. For example, when a man decides to break the rules, and lands to Skein Island disregarding its no-men policy and the need of the female guests to know they were in an absolutely safe space, no one really thinks it’s a big deal. The guy, in the end, ends up being helpful in fixing the disaster that he himself triggered. That makes him a good guy, right? You know, boys will be boys…

Also, I think the story involuntarily reinforces a misogynistic stereotype that I find particularly obnoxious in literature as well as in real life: that women don’t really like each other. If left to themselves, they will probably develop competitive or conflictual relationships. I think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I really wish for it to disappear from the stories I read. Especially when written by women. Another thing that perplexed me, is that sexual assault is used as a psychological trigger, for both the female victim and her partner. To be fair, the episode is organic to the story, and not just a pretext. But, even so, it’s the kind of literary trope that I don’t particularly enjoy.

The blurb of the book made me imagine something rather different. More radical. More political. More about women. It’s not the author’s fault I felt a bit disappointed reading it. Probably, if I had understood better the nature of the story, I wouldn’t have picked it at all, as this is not really to my literary taste. I’m sure other readers can enjoy it to a fuller extent, as it is, undoubtedly, a well crafted novel. The natural and the supernatural blend quite nicely and the plot is gripping enough that it is not easy to put the book down.

The story is quite unforgiving towards the banalisation of feminism, depicted as a commercial product, a brand like many others, mostly for the use of bored middle-class western women that see yoga and scrapbooking as the right way to empowerment. The critique is certainly spot on, the situations and characters described are painfully believable. However, the story doesn’t really offer any better alternative, or suggest a different approach to fight gender inequality.

The real focus of the narrative is probably to be found elsewhere. It seems that the author wants to talk mostly about the power of stories, and how they shape our lives and our perception of the world. She pushes this view to the point of offering a key to explain patriarchy that is almost based on narrative archetypes. This “meta” approach is maybe too sophisticated for me, both on the sociopolitical level and the literary one. So, in the end, I had the feeling that, critique aside and even irony aside, what I was reading was, basically, a book all about men. And, honestly, I decided a while ago that I had had enough of that.

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