Here in the UK, Frances Hardinge is everywhere. Her new book, A Skinful of Shadows (2017), was plastered all over the London underground in the run-up to its publication, thrusting Hardinge into the mainstream.
I heard Hardinge talk about A Skinful of Shadows at a local bookshop and she admitted that she’d felt some pressure when writing. I can’t help wonder if this pressure somehow seeped into the novel as she wrote.
Like all of her books, A Skinful of Shadows is an adventure. There’s a plucky heroine, plenty of ghastly enemies and best of all, murderous ghosts. But the story lacked the originality of her previous work and felt altogether more normal.
It is the English Civil War and the Puritans and Catholics are readying for battle. Young Makepeace lives with her mother in London where she is subjected to some strange tests. Every now and then, and without explanation, Makepeace is forced to spend the night locked in a haunted church where ghosts battle to penetrate her mind.
But there is an explanation. Makepeace has a gift (or perhaps a curse), passed down by her father’s aristocratic family, the Felmottes — she can host ghosts in her body. It’s a gift she needs to be able to control because when a person dies their ghost normally flings itself at anyone who can house it.
When misfortune strikes and Makepeace is forced to go and live with the Felmottes she starts to realise that far from fighting against this gift, the Felmottes are using it for a dastardly purpose. Small and insignificant, Makepeace is at risk of being sucked into the Felmotte’s scheme but she has a secret that gives her strength — Makepeace houses the ghost of a bear in her body.
The bear is the best bit about A Skinful of Shadows. It’s classic Hardinge and there’s something undeniably compelling about a young girl housing a bear in her brain and all the complications that causes. Though Makepeace and the bear forge a deep bond, he’s an unruly companion, prone to bouts of rage. As time moves on the two become inextricably linked so that that the bear’s outbursts reflect part of Makepeace’s own nature.
Readers who have grown used to Hardinge’s heroines will like Makepeace who is dynamic, brave and clever, although of all the girls Hardinge has dreamt up Makepeace is the least distinctive. She lacks the tortured soul of Triss in Cuckoo Song, or the endearing erraticness of Neverfell in A Face Like Glass. But, like them she is an underdog, oppressed by the society she lives in.
Power is an important theme in A Skinful of Shadows and is explored most effectively through Makepeace’s half-brother, James, her only ally at the Felmotte mansion. Though James despises the Felmottes and what they do he is also attracted to the power they wield and is tempted by the status they can provide. Hardinge perfectly captures the creepy, distorting nature of this temptation. She also offers a critique of inheritance and the way the aristocracy passes down wealth and superiority from generation to generation, cementing their power and position.
I’m not sure if a young person with no knowledge of the English Civil War would necessarily understand the wider context of A Skinful of Shadows (I’ll have to find a child and ask them). This doesn’t affect the clarity of the story but a bit more detail about the Puritans and the Catholics could have brought this compelling period of history to life. For example, we are told that lots of people in Makepeace’s community have strange names like hers but not why this is so. Given some of the bizarre things that happened during the war I was surprised that Hardinge didn’t jump on the chance to highlight the weirdness.
The main issue with A Skinful of Shadows is that the pace drops in a way that doesn’t happen in her other novels. I also missed that distinctive Hardinge strangeness — that moment in her other books that made me sit up and think: this is something a bit different. While Hardinge’s previous work piles curiosity on top of curiosity, this is a more linear story with a reasonably clear destination. The ghosts and Makepeace’s interaction with them are wonderful, the story is undoubtedly fun, but the setting and the pace means it loses a certain edge.
After reading Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge shot to the top of my list of all-time favourite authors, and I think it’s a damn shame that she’s not more popular. A Skinful of Shadows is her seventh novel and she still manages to amaze me with her incredibly original ideas, beautifully wrought prose and complex, lovable characters.
Set in the 17th century, during the beginning years of the English Civil War, Makepeace Lightfoot is a child raised among Puritans who suffers from terrible nightmares. Her mother is a highly-strung woman who demands that Makepeace comes to terms with her night-horrors, often by shutting her up in an old chapel for the night.
But then a disaster occurs, brought on by the conflict between King and Parliament, and Makepeace finds herself among her father’s people: the grim, foreboding Fellmottes. Clearly there is a secret to Makepeace’s past, not only in the identity of her missing father but the reason behind her horrifying nightmares.
To stay alive she must solve this mystery, discover her power, and find out what exactly the Fellmottes want with her.
I came into this book cold, without even reading the blurb to get an idea of the story, and that was definitely the best way to enjoy A Skinful of Shadows. Discovering the strange circumstances of Makepeace’s life works better when you’re just as much in the dark as she is about what’s happening. As she discovers the forces that control her life, she starts scrambling for what little agency she can.
The beauty of Hardinge’s work is that she creates morally complex situations without fully committing to any side. There are few true heroes or villains here, just desperate people trying to do what they can with the cards they’ve been dealt, and though some have clearly crossed the line into true evil, you can still understand their points of view and why they do what they do. Makepeace is constantly struggling to differentiate right from wrong, and her fear and survival instincts are often pitted against helping others and doing what she knows is right.
Hardinge is also a master at conveying human nature, with plenty of thought-provoking passages that bring the characters and their thoughts to life. This for example:
If someone throws aside their pride and begs with all their heart, and if they do so in vain, then they are never quite the same person afterwards. Something in them dies, and something else comes to life.
It’s not something I’ve ever seen articulated, and yet it rings so very true.
The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy A Skinful of Shadows, so be careful in reading other reviews. But for a compelling look at a young woman struggling against near-impossible odds, a fascinating metaphysical scenario that’s inherent in the book’s title, and a critique of abusive systems that are fundamentally corrupt (and thereby similar, despite their conflict with each other) then this is a captivating read.