Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

Title: In the Skin of a Monster  
Author: Kathryn Barker
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Published Date: 1 August 2015
Buy: Amazon | The Book Depository | Dymocks Australia

What if your identical twin sister was a murderer? Does that make you a monster too? A profound, intense, heartbreaking fantasy that tackles issues of fate versus free will, and whether you can ever truly know someone.

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.
(summary from Goodreads)

Original and mind blowing, In the Skin of a Monster is the kind of book you don't easily forget. It'll also leave you wondering about the consequences of your nightmares.

For some reason I started this book expecting a contemporary drama but I soon learned my mistake. By chapter two I was wondering what the heck was going on! Monsters? An immortal with wings? Another world? Yeah, contemporary drama, not so much. And looking back at that summary I don't even know why I didn't realise - it's right there, clear as day! But oh well. In the Skin of a Monster has quite the supernatural twist and it is awesome! At first it doesn't make much sense. Barker throws readers right in and we learn as we go. The story is set in a sort of alternate reality, an almost replica of Alice's hometown where the leftovers of the townspeople's dreams exist. But since Alice's identical twin sister took a gun to school and murdered many children before killing herself, most of those dreams have become nightmares, and this alternate reality reflects that in horrifying ways. Here be monsters, but the worst of them are the multiple versions of Alice's sister. It's certainly an interesting and thrilling concept, and I was instantly hooked. It might take a push for some readers though. I read In the Skin of a Monster as part of a book club and found that some were put off by not understanding exactly what was happening. This thing is though, it's purposeful. The narrative is told through the alternating points of view of Alice and Lux. We experience Lux's as if it's the present, but Alice refers to writing her point of view, and so writing after the fact she often alludes to things that are important but will be explained more later. It can be frustrating. But personally, I enjoyed this because when authors let us in on some tidbits it can become too predictable. There was no predicting In the Skin of a Monster for me! The ending was such a surprise. What I liked was that not everything is perfect or convenient. I admit to a little disappointment, but mostly this book, despite it's supernatural elements, is real and I appreciate that. I just have to give kudos to the setting too. A small Australian outback town is where I grew up and I found myself nodding along to a number of insights. Other things like references to Sea World and Movie World also appealed to me, again, because hey, I know those places! 

Barker touches on a number of issues throughout In the Skin of a Monster that are hard hitting and relevant. The most obvious is school shootings, of course. Alice has to deal with the reality of being such a shooters identical twin, actually wearing the face of the person who killed so many of the children of the small town. There's also the question of how much like her sister Alice is, deep down, considering. Barker also touches on the treatment of family members of such murderers after the fact, as well as survivors guilt. It certainly makes for an emotional and heart-wrenching read. It's only brief, but Barker offers commentary on today's camera phone wielding society. A boy used his mobile to take pictures of the murders and Alice's sister wielding the gun rather than calling the police! So much is said with so little. That one observation resonated the most with me, though there's a lot to In the Skin of a Monster that impacts. Alice's journey is poignant. She isn't only trying to find her place but reconcile her love for her sister against the monstrous act her twin committed. It's a struggle readers feel for. As is Marcus's. Marcus's story is sad and surprising, one that packs a real punch. His part in the book is really quite minor, considering, but significant. Lux is much the same as Alice, struggling with his identity and place in the world in terms of his connection to Alice's sister. His and Alice's relationship is touching, allowing each of them to face their feelings about her sister and find their path. And Ivan is a kind of friendly monster, somewhat all knowing and how can you not be taken in by that?!

In the Skin of a Monster is unlike anything I've read before. Barker is masterful in dealing with such serious and relevant topics against a supernatural backdrop that is riveting and unforgettable. 



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