THE LOOSENING SKIN by Aliya Whiteley (Book Review)
“We wear ourselves, then we peel ourselves away. We change and we change. How strange it is, the things we become, and the things we throw away.”
Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin (2018) is a lyrical and bizarre work of weird fiction that uses an idiosyncratic conceit to explore the illusion of continuity of consciousness and the nature of love. The novel is set in a world like ours in every way except that every seven years people shed their skin, and with it any feelings of love. Whiteley uses this setup to tell a heartfelt story that explores the human condition and engages with ideas about identity, selfhood and the necessity of change. Like her previous novellas for Unsung Stories, The Beauty (2014) and The Arrival Of Missives (2016), The Loosening Skin is beautifully written and takes a startling idea in new and original directions, and features well drawn and believable characters with depth and complexity.
The Loosening Skin tells the tale of Rose Allington, a woman who suffers from Extreme Moult Syndrome. Her moults are particularly painful and traumatic, and while some are able to pick up their old lives after moults, albeit no longer in love, Rose is compelled to leave and start afresh each time. In a past moult, Rose was the bodyguard and lover of celebrity film star Max Black. She finds herself dragged back into his life against her will when one of his skins is stolen, which could ruin his career and expose her once intimate feelings for him to the vicarious buyer. So Rose is hired by Max to track down the thief. However, things are not as they seem and soon Rose is forced to confront aspects of her and Max’s shared past she thought she’d left behind.
Whiteley’s novel is concerned with our malleable sense of identity. Every seven years all the cells in our body are replaced; what Whiteley has done is make the change visible and all at once. This allows her to reflect on our sense of self. People change as part of their nature, as we age, adapt to new situations and meet new people. So how does love work as an eternal power, when the people in love are not going to be the same people in a week’s time, let alone a year? Changes in identity call into question the idea of an unchanging constant core. Is there a part of us essential to ourselves that remains unchanged and fundamentally us throughout all the changes we go through? Whiteley has no easy answers, but The Loosening Skin is a way for us to think about these ideas and explore them.
Another major concern of the novel is love and sex, and the difficulty we have as humans in ever satisfactorily nailing these feelings down. Over the course of the novel, the drug Suscutin is developed, which inhibits shedding. Thus people can stay in love their entire lives, hold on to a particular identity, at the cost of a small percentage of people who develop the terminal skin disease Epidermal Sclerosis. The novel asks whether or not part of what make love and sexual desire such powerful forces is their potential transience, whether this forcing of people into one particular iteration of themselves is perhaps unnatural and unhealthy. Max’s unwillingness to change is ultimately what destroys him; Rose’s ability to shed her old life and start again from scratch allows her to survive her trauma.
The novel is also concerned with the idea that, when we ourselves are so malleable and unknowable even to ourselves, it may not ever be possible for us to fully know another person. In the second part of the book, Mikhael Stuck, the youngest of the Stuck Six, is sent to find Rose many years after Max’s death of a drug overdose so that his friend Taylor can make amends. The secrets he uncovers make him question to what extent he ever really knew Max and Taylor, whether or not the interactions he had were more than just skin deep. However, this knowledge also helps him process the dissolution of the Stuck Six and to accept that what they had between them, however fleeting, was an important part of his life.
The Loosening Skin draws much of its uncanny power from Whiteley’s decision to set the novel in a world that, other than the skin shedding, is entirely recognisable as our own. The action of the novel starts in 2013 in the UK, and jumps backwards and forwards in time. As the only difference between this world and our own is the skin shedding, it accentuates the strangeness far more than an immersive fantasy setting would have. Whiteley’s world has been shaped by the skin shedding. It is possible to feel strong emotions through a shed skin that were particular to that moult, which has led to an illegal trade in moulted skins, with those of celebrities going for particularly high prices. A polyamorous group, the Stuck Six, have become famous because of their determination to stick together despite love’s fleeting existence. The existence of celebrity culture and a black market around skin shedding makes it feel more real and part of the world. This uncanniness makes the novel stick in the reader’s mind, and along with its compelling characters, allows its memorably strange ideas to keep returning to one’s thoughts long after one has finished the book.