‘Caitlin Hext’s first shedding ceremony is imminent, but she’s far from prepared to produce a Snakeskin clone. When her Skin fails to turn to dust as expected, she must decide whether she wishes the newcomer alive or dead.
Worse still, it transpires that the Hext family may be of central importance to the survival of Charmers, a group of people with the inexplicable power to produce duplicates every seven years and, in the process, rejuvenate. In parallel with reporter Gerry Chafik and government aide Russell Handler, Caitlin must prevent the Great British Prosperity Party from establishing a corrupt new world order.’
Snakeskins is an excellently crafted and often horrifying look at identity and what it means to be human. In the Britain of Caitlin’s world, there are – ostensibly – two types of people: humans and Charmers, the latter of which have the ability to produce a copy of themselves every seven years from their seventeenth year onward, rejuvenating their body and gaining a longer than expected lifespan in the process. Understandably, she is apprehensive about her first shedding, but when her first Skin does not turn to dust and ‘ash’ as she expects her to, her beliefs and her attitude towards having a duplicate Caitlin around are severely challenged. In the opening pages of the novel, she seems to have a tolerant attitude towards the idea of creating a copy of herself, knowing that she will not have to live with them for more than a couple of minutes, but, when faced with the reality of another version of Caitlin around, with her memories and experiences intact, it turns out that she is not immediately as tolerant or as welcoming as she would have liked.
There are echoes of Never Let Me Go in the Snakeskins narrative, particularly in the use of care homes for the Skins who don’t immediately turn to dust. The reality of how the Skins are treated, compared to what is presented to the outside world, is one of the more disturbing facets of the story, especially when what exactly the care homes are geared towards is revealed. With the exception of the main antagonists, not one of the other characters, Charmer or human, appears to be completely able to decide how they feel about the existence of Charmers and what is the appropriate course of action when ‘dealing with’ the matter of Skins. Some tend towards a more open and pro-rights view, yet cannot help but be repulsed and unsettled when actually faced with a Skin, unable to completely see them as human, despite wishing that their moral compass would read how they want it to. In a world where we appear to be becoming less and less concerned about the ethics of cloning, with more frequent stories of animals being cloned seeming to ‘normalise’ the process, just how we would react to human cloning, compared to how we like to think we could respond, is just one of the ideas explored in the story. It’s all well and good to think that we would want equal rights for copies of humans, but the fact remains that none of us has ever been faced with a copy of ourselves and forced to confront our individuality, mortality and instinct versus morality on such an immediate level – which is one of the reasons why we may never have to do so.
The scenes involving Caitlin and her Snakeskin clone are some of the most powerful in the narrative, especially as regards the behaviour of her copy and her response to her. By turn, Caitlin is reassured by their similarities and horrified by them, just as she is when her Skin displays knowledge and understanding guided by her experiences since their separation. She initially seems unable to decide whether she wishes them to maintain their similarities or become different people, primarily focused on what this means for her once she realises that her Skin has not yet ashed into non-existence. When safe in the knowledge that her Skin will not survive, she is a much more generous and thoughtful soul, yet she turns vindictive and much more narrow-minded when she knows that the matter will continue to affect her, rather disturbingly highlighting one of the more depressing features of human nature: it is much easier to be good and kind and open-minded when an issue does not directly affect us, but we are far less apt to be so if a situation is likely to impact us in any negative fashion.
A keen look at human nature and the workings of a corrupt government, Snakeskins is out today, May 7th! Thank you to the publisher, Titan Books, for gifting me a copy!