Skein Island is a fricking masterpiece.
Right now I’ve got that out of the way we can continue; so, Skein Island is the next novel from Aliya Whiteley, and it’s an old novel, which has been repurposed and republished by Titan Books and I for one am so very thankful that this has happened – I had no idea the novel had previously existed. It was originally published in 2015 by a small press called Dog Horn Press – I’m unsure of how successful Skein Island was at its original release, as I’d never heard of it and assumed when it arrived in the post that it was a completely new book.
But, with Titan Books bringing this forgotten and lost novel to light (including a new novelette written for this specific edition) it is finally in the light where it belongs – and I for one believe wholeheartedly that it deserves the wider acclaim a bigger publishing house can offer, coupled with Aliya Whiteley’s growing reputation as a masterful storyteller – it will have fans of her work clambering over one another to get another slice of her brilliance, and with the help of Titan Books, I firmly believe that it will expose Aliya Whiteley to a great number of new readers!
The novel follows the life of Marianne – we meet her within the first chapter working at a library, reading a personal invitation to Skein Island a place that since 1945 has been offering a private refuge for women. Giving them a chance to forget everything, forget what is needed of them, and what is expected of them – as women. Instead women invited to Skein Island are encouraged to spend their time focusing on their story, their lives without the pressures of society dictating to them what they need to be. Skein Island exists twelve miles off the coast of Devon (just the scope and the way Whiteley weaves this tale of mystery and suspense had me thinking of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’). Visitors are also only allowed to venture onto the island by personal invitation only, they can only stay for a week and pay for their stay with a story from their past, adding their declaration to the Island’s ever growing library.
Aliya Whiteley is a masterful storyteller, there is no doubting that fact. No better place is this exemplified than with the opening chapter to Skein Island. It pulls you in like a passing train to a dangling coat flap, where it drags you off your feet and never lets up – Whiteley is the conductor of this train and there is no stopping this ghastly ride. The opening works so well because we are immediately thrown into the story (no exposition – just straight to the point), a strange invitation, a life spiralling out of control, a passenger in life’s journey. This urgency to Whiteley’s storytelling is aided with a violent and disgusting act being committed within the first few pages, it’s the unspeakable catalyst she never knew she needed to have a chance at change. Her husband following this harrowing event feels helpless and powerless, smothering her as she comes to terms with the things that have happened – she needs a way out, to escape this life, this husband, these reminders, her life – so Marianne heeds the invitation and sets off for Skein Island.
Whiteley delivers such a rich piece of storytelling, infused with horror, mythology and an astonishing poetic prose that make it impossible to look away from – it’s intoxicatingly beguiling and enraptures the heart, mind and soul. A deeply moving story, which I feel talks directly to the here and the now – showcasing to women that they are not just add on’s to mens lives and stories, they are more than mothers and wives, more than eye candy at the office and that their opinions don’t matter – Skein Island tells women that they have a story to tell, lives that they should live and battles they should fight. It’s brave writing, accomplished storytelling and makes for an earth shattering experience.
But, all of this would be nothing, if it wasn’t for Whiteley’s engaging and at times dark and brooding prose, which creeps over ever page like the haar from the sea, blanketing our experience of Skein Island with unease, dread and fear. From the subtle details of Skein Island itself, to the landscape and the intricate elements of the uncanny; Whiteley creates not only a fabulous novel, but an experience you can’t look away from. Delivering line after line of exquisite masterful prose – Skein Island is a juggernaut of a novel, from a voice that will undoubtedly shape a generation of readers and writers!
And Friedrich – that naked, beautiful body of his, thin and straight and golden in that bloodied light – was locked in a standing embrace with a woman I had never seen before, spilling his essence into her with intense concentration, as she sunk her fingers into his chest, broke his ribs with such ease and reached beyond, taking his lungs and pulling them out, stretching them, so that they formed great veined and patterned wings, undulating in the air, spreading out from his coupling like a butterfly on the brink of first, trembling flight.
He came to fulfilment, an expression of blind delight I recognised, and then dropped to his knees and fell backwards. The wings fell with him, splattering the rocks and earth. His head moved; he lived, for a time.
The Greek Mythology element that Whiteley weaves into this tale adds a fabulous sense of grandeur to an already arrestingly brilliant book. It grounds it in history, giving it a firm foundation to launch its assault on your mind. Skein Island feels more like a story that has been shared over a millennia, around campfires, from community to community, a fable handed down from generation to generation – a dark, stark and brooding warning of what is to come.
I don’t really want to delve too deeply into the story, it’s such a fast pace read that I feel if I bring all the darkness into the light, I’ll damage the impact of the book on the reader and lessen Whiteley’s brilliance on show – but I will tell you that something dark lurks at Skein Island, buried deep within the grounds, a statue that has an insatiable and constant hunger, and nothing tastes better than the written mournful declarations of its female inhabitants.
Aliya Whiteley has conjured a story that is steeped in mystery and mythology – a darkly disturbing and challenging read. Skein Island is savagely honest and sharply attuned to the perils and unspoken agony of our times. Whiteley writes like a force of nature and there is no stopping this coming storm!
Skein Island is published by Titan Books and is available here.
Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon in 1974, and currently lives in West Sussex, UK. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. She has been shortlisted for an Arthur C. Clarke Award, Shirley Jackson Award, British Fantasy and British Science Fiction awards, the John W Campbell Award, and a James Tiptree Jr award. Her stories are unpredictable; they can be terrifying, tender, ferocious and deeply funny. She also regularly reviews film, books and television for Den of Geek. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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