Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Skin - Ilka Tampke

It's been a while since I read some historical fiction so when the good folks at Hebban offered me a review copy of Ilka Tampke's début novel Skin I jumped at the opportunity. The slightly different Dutch language version of this review can be found here. Other than that she is from Australia I don't know anything about the author and since it is a début I had no idea what to expect. Skin turns out to be a novel set right before the Claudian invasion of Britain, including some very peculiar speculations  on Celtic society in the first century AD. It's probably a book that is going to divide readers.

Ailia is dropped at the doorstep of the Queen's kitchen. She is raised by the cook and as a person of unknown parentage, or skinless person, she is one of the lowest ranked members of her tribe and considered unfit to learn just about anything to improve her position. Ailia wants to learn though, and as she grows up, it becomes apparent that she has a talent for the spiritual teachings of her people. The nation is desperately searching for guidance under the threat of a Roman invasion but do they dare put their fate in the hand of a skinless woman?

Skin is centered on the Druidic culture that existed in Britain before the Roman invasion. Since the Celts didn't write any of it down, at least not in those days, we actually know very little of their teachings. There are Roman sources of course but they are not considered too reliable. Roman historians had the tendency to portray Rome's enemies as more barbaric than they really were. When it comes to the customs of the Celts at that time, a lot of stuff has been written that the archaeological records doesn't support. It gives a historical novelist quite a bit of space to work with and Tampke uses that space extensively in the novel. Sometimes a bit too extensively. One of the major plot twists hangs on a dubious depiction of human sacrifice, a custom that may well have been a figment of a Roman historian's imagination.

That isn't to say the author hasn't done her homework. Most of the story is set in Cad (modern day Cadbury Castle in Sommerset), one of the large hillforts in the south of England. Tampke hints at the events and social developments (the move away from hillforts to towns in particular) that are apparent in the archaeological and historical record. She admits to slightly adapting the timeline to better suit the story but the main sequence of events is historical.She also borrows a bit from early Welsh and Irish written sources. For readers familiar with this bit of history, the  story is clearly recognizable but there is also something very alien about it.

The central concept of the novel is skin. Skin determines all sorts of things in a person's life. Which animal their totem is, whom they can marry, whom they consider kin. It creates bonds beyond blood relationships but is also the source of taboos. Without a skin, a person's place in society is undetermined and it limits them in all sorts of ways. It will come as no surprise to the reader that Ailia is desperate to find out what her skin is. It is one of her motivations throughout the novel.

I've read a number of novels in this timeframe as well as some non-fiction and I haven't come across this concept before. It wasn't until I came across a clear reference to the songlines, an Australian Aboriginal concept, that the penny dropped for me.
‘What is it we stare upon?’ he asked.
I looked at him. Did he trick me? ‘It is Central Durotriga…?’
‘But what do you see in it?’ He bit into his fish.
I frowned. ‘Fields, rivers, many stones…’
‘When you train you will see it in a different way’ The sun turned his eyes to amber. ‘You will see the stories.’

Chapter 19 - Trees
Besides their view on the landscape, it would seem Tampke also let herself be inspired by an Aboriginal kinship system. I know very little about the details of how it works in Aboriginal society but Tampke doesn't seem to have transplanted one on one to her story. It's nevertheless a strange combination. I must admit I had a bit of trouble reconciling elements from two such vastly different cultures. To an extent even, that it derailed the story for me.

Another thing that bothered me in the novel was the language Tampke employs. You'd expect a few Celtic words or concepts to be added to the text to add a bit of authenticity. Tampke doesn't really do that in her novel but, especially in the dialogue, she uses old fashioned English. It makes the dialogue feel forced.
'Why do you cease?' asked Tara. 'Are you troubled?'
'No.' I shook my head. ' I am thinking of a knave I have met near here'
'A knave?' She sounded surprised.
'Yes - of some height with dark hair.' I looked at her. ' Have you seen him? Do you know of whom I speak?'
Her strong brow furrowed. 'No,' she said. ' He has not come here. And it would not be well for him if he did. This is a woman's place. Men are not permitted here. men will not survive.'

Chapter 14 - Ceremony
Why use 'knave', a word with a Germanic origin, instead of lad or boy? Why refrain from using contractions? Remember that this is a girl with no education whatsoever. Would she speak in such a formal style? It strikes me as a very unnatural dialogue.

The fusion culture created for this novel and use of language are personal quibbles of mine. If they don't happen to be your quibbles the book might still still hook you. It is a very fast paced story with a likeable main character. Ailia is a curious girl, stubbornly working towards her goal of obtaining training in the spiritual teachings of her people. I thought there was a bit of a contradiction in her character in that she is trying very hard to save a way of life that essentially dooms her to being a second rate member of the tribe. She does defend it with a fire that makes what history teach us will happen even more tragic.

To let the tragedy that is about to envelop her people even closer, the author presents Ailia with two interesting men in her life. They have radically different views on the future however. Her love life runs parallel to the military conflict that is brewing. At the end of the story, Ailia makes her choice but it is clear that the battle for control of the island is not done yet. Tampke leaves herself more than enough space for a sequel. My advance copy doesn't mention if there will be one but it seems likely to me.

Skin is not quite what I am looking for in a historical novel.For me. it was a decent read but I do feel Tampke sacrifices a bit too much historical accuracy to the needs of her story. I sometimes wondered if, with the fusion culture Tampke uses, it wouldn't have worked better in a completely fictional setting. The story leans on the supernatural for a large extent. The step into fantasy seems a minor one. Still, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you Skin can be a very entertaining read. All things considered, it is a début with room for improvement.

Book Details
Title: Skin
Author: Ilka Tampke
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 356
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Galley paperback, uncorrected proof
ISBN: 978-1-473-61642-4
First published: 2015

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