‘For weeks, it was all anybody spoke about. The virus had spread from the Philippines to Indonesia. Then from Malaysia to Thailand. Then to China. India. Russia. New cases were appearing by the day, with no sign of stopping. The death toll doubling by the hour. Then the minute. Pretty soon we lost count. It was simply millions.‘ Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin presents us with a world that must have seemed unlikely at the time of writing, but which now has striking similarities with everyday experience. In a dystopian near-future, a virus has decimated the world population. People are confined within their homes to protect them from the disease, connected to the outside world only by video calls and the internet, sinking into the mental blur of long-term isolation. Yet this isn’t the worst thing, for Brown’s virus takes a particularly cruel form. Spread by human contact, through breath or microscopic flakes of skin, it requires the members of a household to quarantine themselves separately. All human contact is out. Food is delivered by the government. Life has become a solo experience. This is the ‘new normal’. But, five years into lockdown, an English woman called Angela makes a shocking discovery which leads (or should have lead) her to question everything she has been told.
Like everyone else, Angela has grown used to the new rules. She hasn’t seen her husband Colin or her children Amber and Charlie in the flesh for five years. To do so would be to risk infection and a painful death. Nowadays ‘family time’ means signing on to the video link at dinner time, from their separate suites within the house, in a bitter parody of a communal meal. More often than not her children don’t even bother to turn up, while Angela does her best to endure Colin’s determined cheer, simultaneously ignoring the needy private text messages he sends her. What is the point of anything any more? In this brave new world, it’s impossible to discipline your children – Charlie has sunk into half-feral obesity, skipping online school to devote all his time to hacking. Amber does little but run endlessly on her treadmill, the distant thumping providing the soundtrack to her family’s lives. Neither of them shares anything with their parents any more, and Angela feels guilty for even trying to break into their worlds. What can she offer them? They face a life of being stuck inside their own hurriedly-converted suite, with a job they can do over their computer, unable ever to meet friends or lovers in person. Nothing she can do can change that. Colin is optimistic about the progress his firm is making in virtual reality, but Angela is yet to discover exactly what this involves.
The one respite in Angela’s life is her neighbourhood watch duty. This allows her to go outside, carefully dressed in a hazmat suit, as long as she undertakes the required disinfection on her return. She can wander the deserted city she still remembers as a buzzing commercial centre, looking at the looted shops and admiring the wildlife which has slowly recolonised the streets. She isn’t even sure what she’s meant to be ‘watching’ for. But then, one day, she spots a furtive movement at the corner of her eye. On her next round, she goes back to investigate and sees something extraordinary: a man, walking the streets in jeans and t-shirt, without a hazmat suit. Open to the elements. Angela is amazed. Is he mad? Insanely careless? Or is he immune to the virus that she’s always been told would kill her if she made even the tiniest rip in her suit? There’s only one way to tell. She must track him down; speak to him. But how can one learn to open up after five years spent diligently closing oneself off from the result of the world?
Coronavirus is the best publicity Brown could possibly have hoped for. It gives Skin a sharp relevance that will attract plenty of new readers: I myself bought the book because I was interested by its inadvertent prescience. And, although Brown’s virus is considerably more lethal than coronavirus, its spread feels eerily familiar: the ‘strange sense of unreality‘, the belief that ‘it was all going to blow over‘, and even a faint sense of relief at being obliged to step off the frenetic treadmill of the modern world (‘at least things would slow down a bit now‘). There’s definitely a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’. It must be unusual for a dystopian novel, within the course of a year, to pass from concept to experience in quite this way. Without coronavirus, though, and without that extra layer of shocked familiarity, how does Skin stand up as a novel?
Here we have to distinguish between the concept – which is striking, all the more so, in retrospect – and execution, which is less successful. Brown has thought carefully about how life would have to be arranged in a state of constant lockdown, and his solutions for domestic life, work, school and food delivery are highly plausible (I’m assuming the food is delivered by drones or automated trucks). However, while the writing is light and pacy, the characters aren’t particularly developed beyond one or two traits – leaving me with the frustrated sense that Angela, as our viewpoint character, is the only really rounded person. We don’t spend enough time with Amber to get to know her properly, even though Brown gives us a plausible picture of the miseries of an isolated adolescence. Colin is by turn bland and unpleasant (unexpectedly so, actually. The less said about the virtual sex party, the better). Charlie is positively repulsive. Even Jazz, who has so much potential, seems little more than a plot device. Spoilers ahead.
I was disappointed by the fact that the plot didn’t do more. In fact, it didn’t seem to know what to do with itself once Angela had spotted Jazz, and that baffled me. Surely the discovery of a mysterious man, who seems to challenge everything you think you know about a situation, should be the catalyst for more than just a briefly torrid affair? Of course, Angela has been deprived of physical contact. Of course she’d be fascinated (I was less convinced by Jazz, who seemed improbably naive). But it just seemed such an obvious, incurious path to take. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have less thrashing around and more discussion along the lines of, “How long have you been outside?” “Have you found anyone else out here?” and “Is there any way we can make people aware of this?” If Jazz is immune, then why, for crying out loud, don’t he and Angela make this fact known, and do something for the greater good of humanity? If his survival has more sinister implications – that the virus has died out; that the government is keeping people cooped up for its own ends – then why on earth doesn’t someone say something about it?! It was frustrating that so much good could have come of Jazz’s discovery, but the characters are too busy having rampant sex inside a reconstructed boat to actually do anything useful for the greater benefit of mankind.
Of course, Brown will have thought carefully about which path to take, and he chose to end the story on a certain note. He presumably wants to make the point that ordinary people are not heroes. We don’t rise up against what the government is telling us. We follow the rules, dutifully. Even if we saw something with our own eyes that challenged everything, we’d still be afraid to speak up and make ourselves a target. In these respects, Angela’s actions are plausible: she’s only human. But to return to the status quo, without much of a struggle, makes for an anticlimax (surely Angela would have cared slightly more about what happened to her own daughter?). We’re left with the promise of future drama, when Angela’s secret is discovered, but I can’t help feeling that Skin itself, despite its fine concept, doesn’t fulfil its initial promise.