Liz Nugent certainly understands the power of an opening paragraph. Her previous novels Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait both grabbed the reader’s attention from the off and refused to let up. Skin Deep is no different
I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had.
Once I had cleared away the broken glass and washed the blood off the floor, I needed to get out.
Cordelia Russell has been living on the Cote d’Azur and passing herself off as an English socialite for over twenty years, but her luck is starting to run out. Money is dwindling, her looks are fading and the body currently decomposing on the floor of her apartment has given her some problems she hadn’t anticipated. She has managed to get herself out of a lot of difficult situations in the past, but is this the end of the line for her?
From this bravura opening, we are taken back to Cordelia’s childhood – when she was simple Delia O’Flaherty, living on the remote Irish island of Inishcreen, with her mother, brothers and violent father, whose obsession with his beautiful daughter will eventually create a woman obsessed with surface appearance. Delia’s father loves to tell stories, island myths and legends that emphasis the sacrifices women have to make to ensure the happiness of men. His obsession with his daughter creates a rift in the family which has devastating consequences and changes the course of Delia’s life forever.
This is a common theme in Skin Deep as the majority of Delia’s life choices are made by the men around her and she eventually ends up with a child she doesn’t love and a husband she hates.
But Delia can adapt – she refines her look, changes her accent and a new Delia, or Cordelia is born. Over and over again. From the cocaine and champagne lifestyle of 1980s London to drug moll in Morocco and art dealer in the south of France, Delia is adept at playing whatever part necessary to get what she wants or get her out of a sticky situation.
I could probably have been an actress. It is not difficult to pretend to be somebody else. Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for most of my life?
Cordelia is your archetypal anti-hero – a selfish yet alluring woman who leaves destruction in her wake. Nugent is careful not to make her seem unhinged – this is no sociopath, rather a woman who is put in difficult situations, mainly by the decisions of men, and does what she has to do to survive. That’s not to say she’s likeable though. She really isn’t and Nugent has shown before that she has the ability to focus on a really unpleasant character and not completely put off the reader.
Having said that, she does push the reader to the limit in Skin Deep and there is a coldness within Cordelia, particularly when it comes to her family relationships that makes any kind of empathy nigh on impossible. Also, given that Cordelia is such a strong central presence, secondary characters can lack a little depth and few are memorable, besides her father. Most exist simply to push the plot forward.
The title – Skin Deep – refers of course to Cordelia’s looks and the way in which she uses them, but it also references the shallow nature of a civilised society that places importance on class, wealth, looks and decency above all else. From her small-town Catholic neighbours who are scandalised by her teenage pregnancy, to her posh London friends who mock the hints of her Irish accent, Cordelia lives in a world that prizes surface appearance above all else. Having been brought up by a domineering father, who was overtly proud of his daughter’s appearance, it is unsurprising that Cordelia buys in to the idea that looks alone can get you what you want.
Nugent paces her story well, that is to say that the tension rarely lets up as Cordelia lurches from one unsavoury situation to another, but the narrative is well-structured as it leads the reader back to that opening scene and mystery of the body in the apartment. There are a few red herrings and pleasing twists, and although the plot is tied up a little too neatly at the end, Skin Deep is another deliciously diverting read from Ireland’s foremost thriller writer.
With thanks to Penguin Random House for providing a review copy in return for an honest review.
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