Feather and Ink: A review of Under My Skin

Note: This blog post contains about a billion spoilers for Under My Skin

I’ve been slacking a bit on keeping up with my YA reading lately (no real regrets, I’ve been chomping my way through Agatha Christie instead. Not literally. That would be extremely disrespectful). I’d heard plenty about James Dawson’s* books, all of it good, but I’d never got around to reading one. So, I did a quick search on my library’s catalogue, and Under My Skin was the first result that came up. I requested it based on that alone, and I’m so glad I did.

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First of all, look at that cover. The picture here doesn’t do it justice. I’m a sucker for black and pink, and I love the fact that the design doesn’t really give away how creepy this story is – there’s a slight hint in the darkness of the grey and the blood-spatter pattern of the pink, but really, all the cover tells us is that the story is going to feature tattoos, and the rest is left to the imagination. For comparison, here’s another Dawson cover:

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I have this book on loan too, but I’m too blimmin’ frightened to read the damn thing.

Under My Skin follows the story of Sally Feather, a shy girl who fangirls over the TV show Satanville (a Buffy expy – can you use expy for things as well as characters? – which I now kind of want to watch) and feels that the only truly exceptional thing about herself is her singing voice. Overlooked by her parents and bullied at school, Sally is pretty unhappy with her life – but everything changes when she first witnesses a horrible accident, and then wanders into the immensely creepy ‘House of Skin’ tattoo parlour and comes out with a pin-up girl, Molly-Sue, emblazoned on her back.

For someone who watches a supernatural TV show, Sally isn’t really quick on the mark with her trope recognition. The House of Skin is clearly a sinister place of which no good could possibly come. But, in true monkey’s paw tradition, things start off extremely well. Molly-Sue begins to talk to Sally, giving her advice that helps her get her life on track; become beautiful and popular, get the boy, and even take on her best friend’s abusive boyfriend.

Here, though, is where it begins to go wrong. Sally agrees to let Molly-Sue take control of her body so that she can scare off Kyle, who, Sally has recently learned, has been beating up her best friend Jennie. Instead of giving Kyle a stern talking-to, however, Molly-Sue puts him through some abuse that would make Tarantino wince – and, Sally realises with horror, she enjoyed doing so.

From here on, Molly-Sue’s true nature becomes clear. Instead of being the friend Sally always needed, she’s a parasitical demon who controls her hosts, and punishes them severely when they try to rebel. There’s one exchange between Sally and Molly-Sue that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up:

“You can’t hurt me. You’d kill yourself.”
“Nice try, small fry. There’s some twenty fingers and toes you’d miss.”

Sally imagined taking her mum’s secateurs from the garden shed and snipping above her knuckles…

There’s a lot I liked about Under My Skin. I’m a sucker for ‘be careful what you wish for’ stories, and this was a particularly well-executed example. I liked that the book had an honest exploration of abuse in teenage relationships. I wasn’t particularly keen on the frequent references to ‘the Friendzone’ (not a real place) with regards to the Stan/Sally relationship, but, the relationship itself was believable, and avoided straying into “Nice Guy™ gets rewarded with sex for performing basic human decency” territory.

The thing I loved most, though, was the ending. Sally goes through a horrific ordeal to try and get Molly-Sue out of her body – and she can’t. And this is the truly brilliant part of the story.

Sally realises she can never get rid of the darkness inside her. But she also realises she’s strong enough to control it.

“Before you, I thought I was weak and scared and uncertain…You made me see I was wrong…I can feel you inside me and, sure, you’re noisy, but you’re so small.

Her final conversation with Molly-Sue shows us a teenage girl taking total control of her body, her mind, and her life – an intensely feminist message. For me, Sally realising that she has to – and can – live with her darkness is a much more powerful ending than if she’d been able to defeat the darkness totally. Under My Skin has an important message, one that resonated a lot with me: there’s a little bit of nastiness in all of us, and the important thing is to try and keep that nastiness from doing harm, as best you can. Sometimes, you’ll screw up, and at those times, you have to own it, recognise it, and try not to let it happen again.

And, on top of this, it ends with one of the best, most cathartic paragraphs I’ve ever read:

As Molly-Sue’s voice faded to nothing, Sally looked deep into her own steely eyes to issue a final warning. “Listen up, Molly-Sue. I’m only going to say this once.” Her lips curled into a slight smile. “Shut the fuck up.”

Under My Skin has left me itching to read more of Dawson’s work. Just, maybe not that really scary-looking one. Not just yet.

 

*NB: At the time of writing, James Dawson has stated that he is a trans woman, but has requested that people continue to refer to him as James and use he/him/his pronouns for now.

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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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