“Whatever this place used to be, after what you did it was ruined. Just like Collector was ruined in the real world. Just like everything was ruined for me, no
matter where I went or where they sent me.”
Kathryn Barker, In the Skin of a Monster
Caught in a dreamscape, mistaken for a killer… will Alice find a way home?
Three years ago, Alice’s identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She’s struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can’t get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she’s trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.
I have absolutely no idea where to start with this book! Kathryn Barker has taken two not so original ideas and created a completely original story. I am honestly blown away by it. Having done a quick skim of Goodreads I was happy to see I wasn’t the only one caught unaware by the fantasy/ paranormal element to this book EVEN THOUGH it does mention a dreamscape in the blurb… Perhaps I was too distracted by the creepy looking front cover! I was quite relieved to discover it wasn’t a straight contemporary; even though there are some that I really enjoy, after a while I find them to be quite repetitive. The content is usually overly depressing or light and fluffy and while each has their place and I am happy to read them, in my experience, it is rare to find one with some real depth. Of course, Barker had to be careful with the themes she chose; I believe that there are some topics – whilst they should be written about – that should be handled with the utmost care. I applaud Barker for the way she masterfully shaped her story.
The last thing you expect your identical twin sister to do is take a gun to school and shoot seven innocent people. Three years later, seventeen-year-old Alice is completely alienated from the small Australian town she lives in because she wears the face of a killer. Unable to escape the hate and fear from those around her, Alice walks – counting her steps – out of town as a form of punishment. The reader gets the feeling Alice has been dealing with some very complex issues of her own as a result of the shooting and they continue to come to light as the story progresses. When Alice crosses paths with her sister, she accidently passes over to a dreamscape where she is confronted by the nightmares of her community. Assuming the role of Kell – whom Alice believes to be a version of her sister – she is introduced to her gang as well as Lux and Ivan, boy and monster working together in the alternate reality. The dreamscape is under threat from the psychopathic dream-schoolgirls intent on killing everything and anyone in the broken world. Alice and Lux must work together to fight the physical monsters as well as their own inner demons.
“Dr Ben was right all along – hate really is a gateway drug. One little taste, and pretty soon you’re into the hard stuff.”
In the Skin of a Monster quite obviously takes inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it is one of the best I have read… and that is saying something considering how many Alice in Wonderland-inspired stories I have read! Barker’s Alice is definitely following the metaphorical white rabbit when she reaches for her sister in a moment of panic and what follows is a fantasy I do not want to find myself in. It is obvious to the reader that Alice has been away in a sanatorium-like place since the time of the shooting although it is clear she is still suffering from some fairly heavy guilt. Alice is a complex character whom I struggled to connect with at the start. Understandably, she comes across as distant, alone and broken. Her sadness and guilt is heartbreaking; her isolation means that recovery can only come from within herself. The saddest thing is Alice’s perception of herself – she is so tied to her sister that she has no idea who she really is. The only perception she has is the one that is inflicted on her by everyone else – monster.
“Staring at those nightmares was like peeking into the heads of all those former classmates and friends who hadn’t spoken to me in three whole years. It was as if I was finally getting a glimpse of all the things that they’d left unsaid.”
Perception is one of the major themes in the book. Alice and Lux represent contradicting ideas and their alternating chapters really explore this. Alice has the face of a monster and Lux has a secret that means he is perceived as the anti–monster… a saviour perhaps. Good versus evil is at the core of the story but Barker moves past the black and white view and poses the question: are we good or bad… or neither? I think that the dreamscape represents the ultimate greyscale – nothing is quite as it seems. It reveals that there are always more than one side and that multiple layers can be revealed. The characters are judged by the way they look instead of who they really are.
“Maybe, as much as the real world was ruining the dream place, the opposite was true. Maybe the destruction was mutual.”
A majority of the story is set within the dreamscape, a menacing and hostile environment that wasn’t always that way; it started off as a benign sort of place until the shooting when the community started dreaming up multiple killer schoolgirls. The repressed material (or not so repressed in this case) is brought forward into awareness and its distorted form reveals the fear of the conscious and subconscious mind. In this case, the schoolgirl is the representation of evil. It is usually such an innocent image that its subversion to evil is really quite terrifying. Barker’s refusal to name Alice’s sister also adds to the sinister feeling in the book. The act of dehumanising a person or thing reduces the perpetrator to a monster-like figure, and encourages the sense of ‘otherness’. It is ‘the other’ that induces fear but I feel like Barker is suggesting that ordinary people can commit terrible acts and the schoolgirl monster really highlights this.
“I’d been so obsessed with the ‘good or bad’ question that I’d missed the whole point. There wasn’t some innate force lurking inside me calling the shots… you don’t ‘discover’ what kind of person you are, you decide it.”
I really, really, really liked this book. I loved the complexity and the rich layering and the interactions between the characters. It is dark and terrifying and the way Barker has dealt with the school shooting overall is quite impressive. It is a completely original interpretation of something so terrible. It is a new way to look at fate versus free will and the impact of our choices. It is a beautiful read.
AUTHOR: Kathryn Barker
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: August 2015
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!