Skin by Kerry Andrew

Skin is a multi-layered novel about a hunt for a lost father, set in the ponds at Hampstead Heath and in Irish loughs. In London in 1985, Matty’s father Joe disappears, and nobody will explain what happened. Over the summer, Matty searches for Joe at the Men’s Pond, where Joe may have been last seen, and discovers the freedom of the water. Fourteen years later, Matty travels around Ireland in a campervan, wild swimming in loughs and trying to follow up a lead that might unravel the secrets of the past.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Skin, but picked it up as I’d read Andrew’s previous novel, Swansong, and I found myself enjoying this one more. Matty is a compelling character (with a few too relatable elements that were well-written, but going into would be giving away too much about the book’s twists, which at least some readers won’t expect) with a believable lack of direction and compulsion to find out what happened to Joe. The motif around wild swimming, identity, and body was nicely done, and as someone who has never had an urgent to swim outdoors before, it did make me almost want to give it a go (despite the endless drowning imagery). The narrative has some twists and turns, with elements of other genres coming in at times, and it was woven together well to make a complex story. I was glad the ending wasn’t as bleak as it could’ve been, perhaps due to connecting with Matty as a character, and I felt the novel balances the literary, folklore elements with the character-driven narrative well.

Skin turned out to be a book I didn’t know I needed but I did, one which combines loss, journeys, gender, sexuality, and water in inventive ways. I’m not usually a fan of books where a character goes off into the Irish wilderness to look for something, but in this case I’ll make an exception, and I found the scenes at the Hampstead Heath ponds really evocative. Matty is likely to stay with me for a while.