Friday, 13 May 2016

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker

In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker was this year's YA Aurealis Award-winning novel, which is the main reason I picked it up. It also helped that I happened to see it at the library, otherwise it probably would've remained on my "meaning to get around to reading" list for a while longer.

What if your identical twin sister was a murderer? Does that make you a monster too? A profound, intense, heartbreaking fantasy that tackles issues of fate versus free will, and whether you can ever truly know someone.

Caught in a dreamscape, mistaken for a killer ... will Alice find a way home?

Three years ago, Alice's identical twin sister took a gun to school and killed seven innocent kids; now Alice wears the same face as a monster. She's struggling with her identity, and with life in the small Australian town where everyone was touched by the tragedy. Just as Alice thinks things can't get much worse, she encounters her sister on a deserted highway. But all is not what it seems, and Alice soon discovers that she has stepped into a different reality, a dream world, where she's trapped with the nightmares of everyone in the community. Here Alice is forced to confront the true impact of everything that happened the day her twin sister took a gun to school ... and to reveal her own secret to the boy who hates her most.

In the Skin of a Monster was not quite the book I thought it would be. From the blurb (and the opening) we learn that Alice's twin sister took a gun to school, three years ago, and killed a bunch of kids. I thought the story would be about Alice coming to terms with the fact that she looks like her sister and that other people see her sister when they look at her. That stuff was in the book, but it was the backstory, not the main plot.

The plot was about Alice being transported to a world of dreams and nightmares, literally, where she encounters dreamt up versions of people she knows or knew in the real world and has to avoid being killed by various nightmare versions. The story is told in alternating chapters from Alice's point of view and Lux's, one of the people who's always lived in the dream/nightmare world. When the story first switched to Lux's perspective, I was a bit thrown because I hadn't been expecting it and because I didn't understand where it was going. As I read more, though, things fell into place and I realised what kind of story this really was.

Barker uses the nightmare/dream world to interesting effect, showing us — through the informative filter of Alice — all the different versions of the twin with the gun that people have been dreaming about (including, for example, the two movie versions who look nothing like her).

Alice's sections are told in second person, as if she's speaking to her twin while relating the events of the story. This, combined with how the other characters talk to Alice (and the fact that no one in the dream/nightmare world knows anyones real names), has the effect of never telling the reader the name of the twin and adding to the, well, unspeakable-ness of what she did.

I enjoyed reading In the Skin of the Monster, especially once I got a proper feel for what sort of book it is. I would classify it as horror — not thriller, which is sort of what the school shooting aspect initially suggested to me — but its not so horrific as to be unsuitable for its YA audience. Also, Barker does a surprisingly good job of taking an event we might associate as more of an USian occurrence and making it work as the background for a story with a very Australian setting. I would recommend this book to fans of YA fantasy and horror. It was not difficult to read but, as you can probably guess from the subject matter, it wasn't what I would call a cheerful read. That said, it also could have been much darker than it was. I can see why it won the Aurealis Award.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2015, Allen & Unwin
Series: No
Format read: Paperback *gasp*
Source: Local library
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge


  1. I got this fir reviewing when it first came out and I agree, it's an impressive piece of YA horror fiction - which is something more, because it could have been a very good contemporary novel in its own right. It's on this year's CBCA Notables list, which, as of this year, is the name for the long list. I think it will make it to the short list, though whether it wins or not is another matter; the CBCA judges tend to prefer to give the awards to authors who have won before, and this is a debut novel. But you never know!

    1. Just did a quick google and it looks like the shortlist will be announced on Friday, so we'll soon see if In the Skin of a Monster makes it. Fingers crossed, I suppose.