Gothic trilogy's second novel is atmospheric
Peter Benson has been described as the most underrated contemporary English novelist. Despite winning the Guardian Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Levels (1987), the Encore Award for his second, A Lesser Dependency (1989) and the Somerset Maugham Award for his third, The Other Occupant (1990), he was out of print for a decade until Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke (2011), the first of what he describes as his ''loose Ashbrittle Trilogy''.
In Isabel's Skin, the second novel in the trilogy. David Morris lives a quiet controlled life in late 19th-century London as a book valuer ''lost in work and habits and the conventions that cloaked my work''. His world is turned upside down when he travels to Ashbrittle to value the book collection of the late Lord Malcolm Buff-Orpington.
Morris begins to feel uneasy on the journey being told, ''There's bad things there … bad things in Ashbrittle. Crawling things. Evil.'' On arrival at Belmont Hall, the housekeeper, Miss Watson warns Morris never to open a window and not to wander in the nearby woods. Of course he does, discovering a dilapidated thatched cottage, where the mysterious Professor Richard Hunt is keeping a woman prisoner, Isabel, on whom he is conducting bizarre, inhuman experiments. Morris rescues Isabel, taking her first to London and then to a remote cottage in Norfolk, hoping to evade Hunt's attempts to recapture her.
Isabel's Skin begins in the tradition of the Victorian gothic horror story, tense and atmospheric. The village of Ashbrittle is impoverished and decaying, ''almost dead, a stranded place''. Miss Watson is reticent and withdrawn, while her two cats watch Morris with ''cruel looks in their eyes''.
The second half, however, morphs into a love story, with undertones of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as Hunt tries to reclaim his creation, with tragic consequences.
Benson is a talented storyteller and his descriptions of the Norfolk countryside are both elegant and a poignant backdrop to the tragedy that unfolds in the story. ''When the sun set, the sky bowled over the marshes and lit up with gashes of orange and pink … and as the dusk's breeze's blew, the marshes began to whisper''.
Unfortunately Benson is unable to reconcile the two halves of his story in a satisfying ending. Benson claims that he is ''an instinctive writer. I don't plan … I make the occasional note, but beyond that, I simply run with the story, and hope that I'm heading in the right direction. I never know how a novel is going to end.'' In the light of this novel, he should reconsider his future strategies as the conclusion diminishes the impact of the whole.