REVIEW: A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS, BY FRANCES HARDINGE (2017)

Screen Shot 2017-11-01 at 12.59.34Makepeace’s nightmares are not like other people’s. She dreams of spectral figures trying to claw their way through the window, inside her bedroom, inside her head. For Makepeace (who is twelve) has a strange gift: she has “extra space” inside her that can be inhabited by extra souls, and the souls of the dead–who want to keep on living, who have unfinished business to attend to–can sense this, and seek her out. Makepeace’s mother Margaret teaches her daughter to strengthen her defences against these spectral invaders by taking her, every month or so, to the old graveyard, and forcing her to spend the night alone in the abandoned chapel, a place positively teeming with ghosts. But when Margaret dies in a riot–it’s 1640, and England is on the verge of a civil war–and a grieving Makepeace goes wandering the countryside in search of her mother’s ghost, her defences down, she becomes possessed with the spirit of a bear. The bear is wild, brutish, and strong–but he may prove to be Makepeace’s best ally when she is taken in by her father’s supremely creepy family. (And that’s just the first 50 pages–the rest of the book is filled with espionage, daring escapes, sinister rituals, and all manner of things I don’t wish to spoil.)

I absolutely loved this book. I have a soft spot for the English Civil War (1642-1651), one of the strangest, most interesting chapters in English history–a time when the King’s army fought against holy warriors carrying Bibles in their pockets, when self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins persecuted witches in East Anglian towns and villages, when religious zealots banned Christmas and the theatre and broke into churches in order to smash stained glass and sculptures of saints. It’s also when newspapers were first used to turn the tide of public opinion, when English women made some of the earliest organised attempts at equality, and when the phrase “the world turned upside down” (as in the Hamilton song) was first popularised. In fact, I wish more writers set their stories in the English 1640s–but after reading A Skinful of Shadows I wonder whether anyone could do a better job than Hardinge.

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It got to the point where my cat thought I spent too much time reading this book, not enough time playing with her.

For one thing, the setting never overwhelms the rest of the story. It’s clear Hardinge did a lot of research in preparation for this book, and she does manages to both capture what makes the Civil War such a strange time and insert a lot of weird little details–such as the belief that witches suckled familiars from extra nipples hidden in their ears. But characters and story are still given plenty of space to breathe. The pacing is fast throughout, you’re always wondering what will happen next, and it’s difficult not to devour the book several chapters at a time–there’s never a moment where, say, you have to slog through several paragraphs explaining how agriculture worked at the time. And rather than being historical archetypes (the meek servant girl, the ambitious but illegitimate son, the honourable soldier, and so on), most major characters follow complex and believable psychological trajectories, and/or reveal hidden depths in the course of the story that make them more complex and believable.

Second, the setting and the story mirror each other in interesting ways. Specifically, the conflict between the Fellmottes (Makepeace’s father’s family, ancient and all-powerful and apparently immune from the vagaries of fortune) and Makepeace (a teenage girl of humble origins, put to work as a servant in the Fellmottes’ kitchens) mirrors the one that was ravaging the country at the time. Charles I was the last in an ancient line of kings and queens, and he was believed to represent God’s very will on Earth, and yet he found himself attacked on multiple fronts from the people who were meant to obey his every command. The parallels between story and history are made particularly explicit in one of the novel’s most shocking and unexpected moments, a few chapters before the end.

Finally–even though, as I’ve said, I’ve read a bit about the subject, I think Hardinge still managed to enrich my understanding of the Civil War. I will never stop thinking of Charles I as Hardinge describes him–

as if History were walking at his heels like a vast, invisible hound. It followed him, but he did not command it. Perhaps he would tame it. Or perhaps it would eat him.

–and I appreciate the fact that Hardinge gave a credible voice to the sort of person (Makepeace) who, because of her gender, age, and status, does not normally get a voice in the historical record–and whose horror at the aristocracy’s decadence does provide some extra insight into the motivations animating the anti-Royalist camp. In fact, one of my favourite passages is when, at a Twelfth Night party, Makepeace sees a young nobleman dunk a lace handkerchief into some ale in order to crumple it into a sodden ball and throw it at a friend’s face, and

the waste enraged her. Somebody had worked for weeks to make that lace, stitch by careful stitch. Unknown sailors had braved terrible dangers to carry the soup’s spices from other lands. She herself had spent some time preparing the lamb’s-wool ale. The young blade’s little show of ‘lordly high spirits’ had wasted more than money or fine goods; it had wasted other people’s time, sweat and effort without a thought.

Now–in this review I’ve ended up focussing mainly on the way Hardinge handles the setting, simply because that’s what I found most interesting. But you don’t have to be a history buff to fall in love this book. It is also a very, very good adventure story, with lots of twists and turns, a healthy dose of the supernatural, a plucky heroine, and a colourful cast of supporting characters. And it can also be read as yet another great, touching tale about the bond between a human and an animal (albeit, in this case, a ghost animal), very different from but in this sense very worthy of rubbing shoulders with H Is for Hawk, The Wolf Border, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, and other books and films I can’t think of at the moment. And, now that the end of year is approaching and I’m starting to think about “best of” lists, I think it’s safe to say that A Skinful of Shadows is up there with Naondel and Pachinko as one of the best books I’ve come across this year.

(Also–for anyone who’d also like to read some non-fiction on the English Civil War, I’d recommend Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: A People’s History, which Hardinge herself used for her research–it’s a pretty chunky book, but if its size intimidates you, I think it’s fine to dip into the most interesting-looking chapters rather than reading it cover-to-cover.)

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