Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Liz Nugent, Skin Deep

Cover image

A woman to blame

As with most of the book discussion I’ve been posting recently, this isn’t intended as a review. It assumes that you’ve already read the book and, as usual, does not avoid so-called spoilers.

When Delia O’Flaherty was 4 years old, she told her father a malicious lie. She falsely said that her mother had tripped her up, with the result that her father gave her mother a black eye and said “that bitch deserved it”. The lie was certainly intended to cause trouble for her mother, but did that mean that the four-year-old girl was more at fault than the adult man? Tom the Crow, her father’s best friend, has no doubt that it did. “From an early age,” he says, “Delia stirred trouble in that family.”

Five years after that incident, Delia (afraid that her mother is about to take her away from her beloved father and the bleak and bare island where she’s spent her whole life so far) tells her father an exaggerated version of the truth: that she’s seen Tom the Crow kissing her mother. The consequences this time are that her father locks the rest of the family into their remote cottage, sets it on fire and shoots himself dead.

Delia gets the blame for that, too, though it’s many years before she has any idea what actually happened. All she knows is that her father inexplicably abandoned her and that night he and the rest of her family were killed in a fire. The islanders cover up Martin O’Flaherty’s family annihilation, making it look like a tragic accident, because they’re afraid that officialdom will use it as an excuse to move the last remaining humans off the island for good and all.

None of this is to claim that Delia (or Cordelia, as she later renames herself) is a misunderstood, well meaning victim. She’s a monster (and, in the words of her former father-in-law, “a fucking hex”: selfish, unfeeling, impervious to the needs and the suffering of others. She’s a consort to drug dealers, fraudsters and exploiters. When we meet her at the start of the book, she’s going out for a night on the town, leaving the corpse of a man she assumes to be her son on the floor of her tiny apartment.

She doesn’t have a lot of choice. She has run out of money and she’s desperate to find somebody who will buy her a meal and/or advance her a small loan. At the same time, she’s always been indifferent to her son. She never intended to have him in the first place, but was prevented from going to Liverpool for an abortion by her adoptive father, a long-suffering, hardworking, sometimes forgiving and mainly benevolent man who unfortunately turns out also to be a religious fanatic. So maybe Delia’s callous attitude to her son, brutal and shocking though it appears to us, is within the range of recognizable and understandable human emotions.

Monster though she may be, Delia isn’t uniquely wicked. Most of the people who surround her are every bit as monstrous. They too are cruel, selfish and unfeeling. But Delia gets the blame in a way that most of them don’t. She can best be seen as a partly deserving scapegoat. Part of her problem is that most people — including herself, unfortunately — overestimate her intelligence. When she announces that she wants to study medicine, for no better reason than resentment at the daughter of the people who took her in after her father’s crime, it’s assumed that this is within her capabilities.

So when she acts like a scheming villain, people are all too ready to accept that she’s an evil mastermind, or something close to it. Her attempt to blackmail the wife of her husband’s business partner is particularly ill-judged, and ends ignominiously. The impression of intelligence that she evokes seems in part to be a consequence of her beauty. We’re often inclined to assume that extremely attractive people must be wiser and smarter than the rest of us. It’s not until she’s in her late teens that Delia becomes aware that she is exceptionally good looking. It’s not a quality that she seems to value for its own sake, though she soon realizes that, because of it, men are very often willing to give her things she wants, including the benefit of the doubt, at least up to a certain point.

The chip-pan fire that terribly disfigures her son deprives her of exactly half of her beauty. One side of her face remains as it always was, the other is scarred, deformed and melted. She suddenly finds it essential to recover the physical appearance that has never previously seemed to count for much with her. She becomes sober and focused, single-minded and willing to subject herself to a range of indignities and painful experiences. She moves in with a violently abusive criminal to whom she is not remotely attracted, and later sits interminably as the model for an artist obsessed with ugliness and damaged beauty.

As soon as she can afford to pay for it, she undergoes the plastic surgery which is supposed to restore her good looks. Once the procedure is complete, she starts to drink again and her life begins to fall slowly but irreparably apart. Eventually, the visit from the unrecognisable man she takes to be her son reminds us of the parallel between two fires: the one started by her father with the intention of wiping out a whole family (with the exception of one member) and other by her in a bout of drunken recklessness. At this point, the book calmly dares us to make a dispassionate assessment of the different degrees of blameworthiness.

Dreadful things happen in this story. Two fires, as we’ve seen. The warping of children’s psyches by the foolish or insane desires of their parents, natural and adoptive. The destruction of one family by the fraud of its “good” but weak son and that of another set in motion by the uncomprehending, instinctive malice of a 9-year-old girl. When Delia was a child, her father used to tell her tales of life on the island in the days when it was more densely populated and even had a chieftain They were stories of a hard life in which women seemed generally to get the worst of whatever deal was on offer.

The islanders seemed a race apart from the mainlanders and, though Delia ended up spending much of her life on the Côte d’Azur, the reader has the impression that she belongs more to that now lost race, the last of its queens (which is the role her father prepared her for). The island is ironically named Inishcrann, the tree island, though in fact the tree, an apparently miraculous oak, had died back in the seventeenth century, leaving the island unsheltered and exposed and its inhabitants without protection from the Atlantic winds and waves.

I loved Liz Nugent’s previous book, Lying in Wait, which (as I said in my mini-review) “features grotesquely damaged characters doing vicious things to each other”. I found Skin Deep both more disturbing and less entertaining — at the same time more melodramatically horrific and yet in certain senses more realistic than its predecessor. There are times in the book where Delia’s unthinking, instinctive malevolence seems to be simply a product of the harsh place she came from. I’m reminded that it’s not so far away from where I was born and brought up.

Posted by Art on 30-Jun-2019.