‘Skin’

Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin has weird similarities to the current Covid-19 lockdown, but the situation in this story is far more extreme — an existential threat to humanity. Families are self-isolating from the world, and from each other, forced into their bedrooms and onto the web. Living in the same house, but emotionally worlds apart.

The novel opens with a government warning that’s scarily like the one the government sent to UK mobile phones. From that opening, the story moves back and forth in time, alternating between the moment the pandemic hit, to the present (four years later) when the military are enforcing the quarantine.

The quarantine in Skin has become the ‘new normal’. The state has reorganised itself into a faceless authority focused around human survival based on the military and government medical services. Angela and her family live in their rooms, self-isolating, spending their time on the internet, going to school on the internet, no longer communicating with one an other. And yet they’re safe, fed by government food drops to the house, and both of them are working online. They are the lucky ones.

Life in the house is a kind of 21 Century family version of I am legend. In the midst of the self-isolating lifestyle all is not well. Angela is estranged from Colin even though they live only one room apart. Colin’s focus is on his job, virtual reality, and online VR sex clubs. The daughter, Amber spends her time on her running machine, pandering after her ex-boyfriend that she can no longer meet. The son, Charlie is eating himself to death, playing computer games, and maliciously hacking into other peoples’ computers.

Angela is part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. She sees it as one of the last vestiges of the local community (although in reality it’s little more than a government snooping scheme). One day, walking around her desolate neighbourhood on a routine patrol, wearing a hazmat suit, she returns home and replays her video report when she becomes convinced that she’s seen a figure in a shadow, someone watching her.

The story feels like it was written with the hindsight and experience of the 2020 lockdown, but it was published last year. Angela is a great character with sufficient depth and likability to carry the story from her point of view. The naturalistic tone of her narration makes for a captivating, easy reading experience.

Four years into self-isolation and just being alive feels like a victory when so many others have perished. But, the effects of a strict self-isolation are weighing heavy on the family.