Stronger Than Skin by Stephen May

Stronger Than Skin is an oxbridge novel that those who love to read about the hidden world of academic privilege will undoubtedly relish.

Mark has everything: a loving, attractive and pregnant wife, two wonderful children, a fulfilling job. But Mark also has a past and as he cycles home thinking of supper and the joys of family life, he sees the police at his front door and decides to cycle past.

So the novel begins.

We wonder what can Mark have done? Why doesn’t he simply turn himself in? Why doesn’t his wife know what he did?

As he searches for those old connections he once had at Cambridge in the early 1990s, the traumas of his youth slowly come to light. Not only did Mark commit a crime when he was a student at Cambridge University, but the death of his sister Eve – a suicide that devastated his family – is an earlier trauma that muddies the second.

The plot of Stronger Than Skin, which plays with the idea of scar tissue, emotionally and physically, as something that becomes tattooed upon the body and mind, is a strong one and I found myself eagerly turning the pages. Whether what I uncovered matched up to what I imagined I might find is another issue. Mark’s family life is almost too perfect, his attitude to life rather holier than thou. Though the novel recognises this aspect of Mark, there is still part of me that found Mark difficult to empathise with. Ultimately, I felt his past was never quite as awful as I imagined. His eventual punishment is, however, very satisfying.

I’m not sure if I was quite the right reader for this novel. It is tightly constructed and the characters are well-observed. The pressures of obsessive love feel real. I believe in the ways some of the emotionally and academically highly strung characters interact with each other and I can see it making a good film. I didn’t, however, come away feeling that I’d unturned a new avenue of human experience but this is a tall order to require of every novel and I’m certain that Stronger Than Skin is novel many will delight it.

Later this week I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw.

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