Isabel’s Skin

Written by Peter Benson
Review by Sarah Bower

Book valuer David Morris is summoned to Belmont Hall to value the collection of the late Lord Buff-Orpington, a specialist in works of the Age of Enlightenment. David finds himself caught up in a mystery of Gothic monstrosity, in which even the weather, ruinously wet, causing crops to fail and livestock to fall sick, conspires. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”, reads the epigraph, quoting from 1 Corinthians, and David’s encounter with the fabulous Isabel Carter will change him for ever.

Although Benson’s novel is set in an indeterminate Edwardian period, and wears its Gothic credentials on its sleeve, the roots of his tale go much deeper, through Coleridge’s Lamia, to the Breton myth of Melusine, to the Sybil and the romance of Cupid and Psyche. It is full of M. R. Jamesian suspense and Mary Shelley-ish frissons, but it is really a story about the rewards and dangers of risking everything for love. As the scales fall from David’s eyes, and he is led deeper into the mysteries of his love, both for his cold, difficult and broken-hearted father and for Isabel, he leaves the beautiful rationality of Belmont’s library behind him and enters a nightmare world from which only love can save him. Recurring imagery to do with snakes and apples serves to remind us that knowledge – seeing – is both dangerous and irresistible.

Slightly marred for me by Benson’s tendency to take a metaphor and wring the last ounce of life out of it, and by some inconsistency in the narrative voice, this is nevertheless a gripping mystery, a touching romance, and a novel which has serious points to make even as it entertains. I read it in a single sitting.