I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had.
From the very first sentence, Liz Nugent’s ‘Skin Deep’ hauls you in and keeps you transfixed. Beginning in the present with a corpse, a clean-up and a party of the very rich and very unpleasant, Nugent introduces us to Cordelia who engages our attention not through empathy and understanding but fascination. This is a woman skilled in manipulation; a woman with her eye on the main chance. This first chapter is like watching a film flickering in front of you; you’re an observer looking in with growing curiosity and a modicum of horror. You read on because you want to see what is beneath the surface; who is Cordelia and what is her link to the body she has so coolly and carelessly left behind?
Nugent then whisks us into a past where we find that ‘Cordelia’ is, in fact, Delia O’ Flaherty. Rather than the wealthy English background –‘you’ve got an accent like the goddam Queen’- she has adopted amongst the rich and famous living in the South of France, she grew up on the isolated and impoverished Irish island of Inishcran. And it is here where she has been most happy. Martin O’ Flaherty, her father, while an abusive bully to his wife and sons, is infatuated with his daughter. His loving attention, the fishing trips out on the boat, the stories he tells; all of this is for her alone. Delia will become the Queen of Inishcran. Loretta, Delia’s mother, while understanding the damage this is having to her sons and Delia, is powerless to intervene. She decides to take her children back to her home in Minnesota and Delia, who will do anything to prevent that happening, tells her father a secret which has tragic ramifications.
It is risky for an author to use such an unlikeable central character as Delia O’Flaherty but Nugent gets away with it because of the skill of her writing, the adept way in which the novel is structured but, predominantly, because of the intense psychological interest she arouses in her subject. As a young child Delia learns to use her beauty and her uncannily tuned assessment of others’ weaknesses to get what she wants. Her sheer inability to empathise or to feel love or compassion for anyone other than the father she remembers is a compelling feature of the novel, as is her lack of self awareness. While the people who come to care for her and love her attempt to repair the damage they see that has been done to her, she is unwilling, unable to respond. The ending is fittingly chilling; she returns to the island, now abandoned, where she once imagined she would be Queen.
Skin Deep is exactly that; it crawls beneath your skin and keep you reading into the night.
Reviewer: Paddy Richardson
Penguin Random House, RRP 37.00