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Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

‘Skein Island, since 1945 a private refuge for women, lies in turbulent waters twelve miles off the coast of Devon. Visitors are only allowed by invitation from the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. Women stay for one week, paying for their stay with a story from their past: a Declaration for the Island’s vast library.

Marianne’s invitation arrives shortly before her quiet life at the library is violently interrupted, the aftermath leaving her husband David feeling helpless. Now, just like her mother did seventeen years ago, she must discover what her story is. Secrets are buried deep on Skein Island. The monsters of Ancient Greece and the atrocities of World War II, heroes and villains with their seers and sidekicks, and the stories of a thousand lifetimes all threaten to break free.

But every story needs an ending, whatever the cost.’

Skein Island follows the journey of Marianne, who, in the wake of a violent intrusion into her life, accepts an invitation to Skein Island, curious to know just why her mother visited the island and never returned to her. Her decision to visit the island forms part of her desire to take greater control over her life, determined that she will not be viewed as to be protected or ‘rescued’ by her husband and other men, and her need for answers presents the opportunity to examine multiple facets of her past and her present.

The story’s content primarily (and I use the term loosely, for there is a great deal covered by the novel’s themes and plot threads that I couldn’t possibly hope to examine in as much detail as I’d like in a single post) addresses imbalances of power and how the sexes view each other, particularly how women are historically seen as the weaker sex, to be footnotes in the stories of men and not permitted to take charge of their own stories. There are a good deal of references to Ancient Greek literature and mythology, which I very much appreciated, especially as it serves to highlight just how much society unfortunately hasn’t left behind the ancient belief that women are to be controlled and must behave only in particular ways – and that any woman who steps outside of those boundaries is to be considered unnatural and out of control. There are repeated instances of men growing frustrated with women when they do not behave as is desired or refuse to let their partners be the ‘hero’ that they wish to be, with the male point of view ultimately finding women unreasonable for not permitting them to always respond as they wish or in ways they appear to find instinctive.

What I’m not sure is deliberate or not, but will comment on as an interpretation as if it is, is that there appears to be an ironic presentation of different stereotypes of women. To go into too much detail would give away too much of the plot, but there seem to be characters who are deliberately crafted to fit a category, such as the ‘mother’ and the ‘homewrecker’, which I think is an interesting construct in a novel exploring female identity, especially as it makes the reader think just how much of the idea of these judgements passed on women is down to a society, media (etc) that has long been controlled by men.

The magic and fantastical elements of the story are chilling and there are no punches pulled in the execution of the more disturbing features of that which forms Skein Island’s core fantasy component. Coupled with the commentary about stories of women and their role in their own narratives, it makes for a haunting read that acknowledges the frustration and suffering of women through the ages – and addresses the fact that acknowledging such does not give even the most self-aware complete freedom from all that continues to bind them.

One thing that I feel I have to mention is that I don’t believe the blurb accurately represents the novel’s content. Given the content of said blurb, I was anticipating a great deal more to do with Ancient Greece and historical struggles, and though I did, as mentioned above, greatly appreciate and enjoy the references to mythology, it wasn’t quite what I was anticipating.

Skein Island is out November 5th! Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy for review!