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How it feels to be uncomfortable in your skin

Tony Flynn reviews Skin by E.M. Reapy

In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde wrote that beauty is ‘higher indeed than genius, as it needs no explanation’. Like much of Wilde’s writing, it remains as powerful and provoking today as it was in 1890. So much of what we define as ‘good’ is still reduced to that which we call ‘beautiful’. Just look at any blockbuster movie playing in the cinema at a given time and you will see heroes played by people who are so attractive that they appear to be almost godlike, while the villains are largely shown with an unattractive appearance, as if the physical is a gateway into one’s personality and worth.

There can be no doubt about it, we are still living in a world, and a culture, that is hugely preoccupied with appearances, and the spotlight shines as bright as it ever has. How could it not when everyone carries a camera in their pocket at all times? There also seems to be, however, a growing sense of awareness about how detrimental the preconceived notion of ‘beauty’ can be for people’s physical and mental well- being. There is an unwillingness to settle for the old stereotypes that for so long have been considered acceptable, because so many of the impossible standards of ‘beauty’ presented in various media do not empower and inspire as much as they isolate and demoralise by making people feel that they are lacking in worth because they do not match this so-called vision of perfection.

Into this arena arrives Skin, the second novel by E.M. Reapy. That one- word title alone is intensely powerful. This is a novel about how we feel beneath the skin and where in the world we seek to place ourselves. The narrative centres around a woman named Natalie, who is disillusioned with her career as a teacher and uncomfortable in her own skin. Prone to bouts of disordered eating, particularly at times of great stress, and often comparing herself unfavourably to those around her, she takes to travelling in an effort to find some sense of peace and belonging within herself.

My old housemate Kim, the one with the boyfriend, 
she said travelling had cleared her head. Made her see life differently.
That’s what I decided to do. That’s why I’m here.
I don’t even want to be here. I’m so uncomfortable all the time.

The above quote appears early on, and it informs us of so much about Natalie’s character. She is someone who is aware—perhaps overly aware—of what she is seeking in her travels. She wants to feel comfortable and clear. No matter where she goes, however, she cannot seem to get out of her own head, or away from the anxieties and nsecurities she carries with her. Natalie cannot shed the skin that wraps itself around her, and she sees that skin reflected in the eyes of so many of the people whom she meets, whether it be a complete stranger at a hotel in Bali, whom she does not even want to stand beside because she feels so inadequate, or her own aunt, Dolores, whom Natalie learns had her breasts removed in a battle with cancer, and yet still seems so much more comfortable in her skin than Natalie can imagine ever being in her own. This is an encounter that aches with a strong, quiet resistance in the face of one’s own flesh turning against them. It is an encounter that seems to upset Natalie more than it does her aunt, because Natalie did not realise that Dolores had been through such an ordeal. In a remarkably well-written encounter, Natalie’s aunt tells her that she should not feel so upset for stumbling onto this potentially upsetting subject, and while Dolores may be consoling, Reapy is skilled enough and empathetic enough a writer to allow the pain to make itself evident in the silences of the dialogue.

Author E.M. Reapy

This is a novel of encounters and, as such, it has a fairly episodic structure. Natalie is compelling enough a character, however, that the through line of the novel is never compromised. Though episodic, it never feels anything less than one complete story. The novel is at its best when it is revealing the insecurities of the characters around Natalie even when she seems unaware of them. So caught up is she in her own anxieties about how the world is viewing her that it does not occur to her that everyone around her is just as concerned with how the world sees them: each person trying to save face and live up to some idea they have of themselves in the world. If this is a novel of encounters, then it is also one of realisations, ranging from the poignant and the bittersweet to the quietly devastating. Characters who at first appear to be one thing reveal themselves to be something entirely different. There is a story beneath everyone’s skin, and yet so often we are judged only by what appears on the surface. One of the most effective episodes in Reapy’s novel concerns a character named Fionn, who is invited to stay with Natalie and her grandmother in the west of Ireland to give him space to work on his poetry. This extended visit then seems to go on and on, and in a uniquely Irish manner, Natalie feels too awkward to ask Fionn how long he intends to stay and instead begins to quietly resent his presence in a manner that will feel painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been in a similar position. How this episode resolves itself is as poignant as anything you will read in a novel this year. Fionn is, after all, looking for exactly the same thing that Natalie is: a place where he can feel comfortable and clear. The problem is that he finds this in someone else’s home.

The novel is at its best when it is revealing the insecurities of the characters around Natalie even when she seems unaware of them.

‘Who chose this face for me?’ asks Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it is a question that most people contemplate at some time or other. How might my life have been different if I looked any other way? We are all wrapped up in our own skin, and at times it is a struggle to like the people we are, or to forgive the people we are for who we once were, or for who we might want to be.

‘You’re a ball of anxiety and ridiculous worry at the best of times but you do stuff anyway. That’s pretty brave, kid.’ This, spoken to Natalie by one of her friends, is another example that sums the character up perfectly. She is not a natural traveller. She does not believe she will find the secret to her happiness in Bali, or Peru, or Amsterdam, but she goes to these places anyway, in spite of how uncomfortable or anxious she feels, because what has she got to lose? Hers is a restless spirit. When she starts leading spin classes while working in a gym, she hits upon the idea of turning the classes into imaginary travel sessions, choosing a location and then tailoring her script and playlist to incorporate facts and information on foreign places into the workout. This is again testament to her restless character and her desire to transcend wherever she may be at any given point. She is someone who so often wants to be elsewhere, and part of her journey, and ours in the reading, is understanding that this need not necessarily be a negative. It is possible to learn how to carry ‘elsewhere’ with you.

This is not the first time that E.M. Reapy has written about Irish characters travelling abroad. The author’s first novel, Red Dirt, published in 2016, focused on the experiences of three young characters living in Australia. It was a truly blistering novel, and while Skin may not have the immediacy or sheer gut-punch power of her début, it may ultimately be the more affecting piece of work. It is a quieter novel, but no less powerful, and perhaps a more humane piece of writing. It speaks to the reader in a calm and gentle voice, honest and understanding. It is ultimately positive without ever being trite or patronising. Natalie is walking a difficult road, but so are the characters around her, whether it be a struggle with how they look, whom they love, or their physical or mental health. A great piece of writing can make us feel less alone with our own pain and also make us more aware of other struggles that we might not otherwise have thought of. Skin is such a novel. It is funny and heartfelt, and speaks powerfully and empathetically towards concerns of bodily and mental well-being in a manner that proves absolutely vital. It is a hugely impressive piece of work.