Diana was a child model, always admired for her beauty. In 1980’s Manchester she turns her back on modelling and her pushy mother to study art at Manchester University. Insecure and having difficulty with her art she is under pressure, until she meets Cal.
Cal is four years old, and is kept hidden by his drug addict parents due to his facial disfigurement. Diana is fascinated by Cal and his difference, and he becomes the focus of her art. As Cal grows older and struggles to become accepted, and Diana becomes a renowned artist cracks start to appear in their relationship. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, and can Cal be accepted in a society where image is so important.
Skin Deep is a powerful, if at times a difficult read. The main plot line deals with the question of what makes people beautiful. In todays society where our lives are documented on social media, and the importance of the selfie it really captures the zeitgeist of the period.
The narrative goes between Diana and Cal and their lives. Diana’s story follows her from the 1980’s to the present day, from a student to a renowned artist. Cal’s story is told from a hospital bed where he is recovering from a cosmetic procedure which he hopes will make him look ‘normal’. Cal also has flashbacks that take him back through his childhood to becoming an adult. He reminisces about certain events and his feelings and thought about them. He is never really sure if some of them are real memories of just imaginings of his mind. What these thought do is let us see his feelings about who he is, how he is seen by other others and how the fame brought about by Diana’s art has effected him.
As characters Diana and Cal are polar opposites. Diana is blonde, beautiful, and comes from a privileged background. However, her relationship with her mother, Bunny, is strained due to years of abuse, both physical and emotional; Bunny pushed Diana in her modelling career and would hit her if she misbehaved.
Cal is dark haired and facial disfigured, kept out of sight so he doesn’t frighten others. He is neglected by his drug addict parents, kept in a bedroom with his toys and television. Diana sees him as the antithesis to her and beauty and makes this into a life long art project; she makes him more beautiful and herself less so, even going to the lengths of injecting saline in to her face to distort it. What I found really interesting all of this is that the abused became the abuser; Diana in her relentless pursuit of her art pushes Cal into the limelight without really considering how it could effect him, she even resorts to blackmail at one point. However, I still had sympathy for her, she really did love Cal and thought she was doing her best for him. In my eyes she redeems herself by realising what she has done, even if it may be too late to save her realtionship.
Laura Wilkinson’s prose is beautifully written and her characterisation really engages the reader, realism in plot and characters come through. The only problem for me was the timeline; there was very little indication of what year we were in, the age of Cal at the important parts of the story. Personally I feel that the inclusion of years would have added to my enjoyment of the book, I felt it would help me understand more of Cal’s journey and feelings.
Overall, Skin Deep is an original and thought provoking read, with characters that will capture your heart. I think it is a novel that will certainly stay with me for a long time; it is intelligent and gives a balanced argument to both sides of the story. I highly recommend this book, and think it would benefit a teenage audience as well as adult as it questions so many values in todays society.