Review of Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Skein Island, since 1945 a private refuge for women, lies in turbulent waters twelve miles off the coast of Devon. Visitors are only allowed by invitation from the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. Women stay for one week, paying for their stay with a story from their past; a Declaration for the Island’s vast library.
Marianne’s invitation arrives shortly before her quiet life at the library is violently interrupted, the aftermath leaving her husband David feeling helpless. Now, just like her mother did seventeen years ago, she must discover what her story is. Secrets are buried deep on Skein Island. The monsters of Ancient Greece and the atrocities of World War II, heroes and villains with their seers and sidekicks, and the stories of a thousand lifetimes all threaten to break free.
But every story needs an ending, whatever the cost.

Firstly, I would like to thank Titan books for providing me with a copy of Skein Island for review.  Skein Island has honestly left me lost for words, in a good way, but I’m struggling with where to start with my review – I think I need to start by understanding that this book is far, far more than the blurb suggests. From the start this reads as edgy womens fiction, but then quickly develops into magical realism with a thriller slant. It’s utterly compelling and I kept finding myself returning to it’s pages any spare moment I got.

We travel to Skein Island with Marianne, the second generation of her family to visit. The catalyst is an unseemly event which has a ripple effect on everyone else around her. I’m still not sure what I make of Marianne, she is very standoffish and hard to garner any emotion from, but she does make for a great unlikely protagonist. I think her disconnect allowed me to focus on what was going on around her more though, almost like she was a bystander in her own story, but lets come back to that in a bit. Her husband David, goes through quite the arc though as he becomes almost over emotional at his wife’s attendance at the Island, his unsaid fears of history repeating giving him quite the insight he wasn’t bargaining for. I found that the balance between the 2 was perfectly played, the story was broken down into parts and each part brought about an new, sometimes unsettling, change in their dynamic.

The island itself felt very bleak and tired, like it was just going through the motions, a shadow of what it had once been. It felt like it has once been a place full of hope and excitement, but had been bogged down by the role that modern women now took. The declarations moving from the overwhelming excitement of how the island came to be founded, down to complaints about errant husbands and a life that could have been. However, it’s the story of how the island came to be founded which brings us out of the bleakness and whips us into a fantastical world of pre-defined roles which has be subjugated by both modern living and gender equality. The roles which were so entrenched in ancient mythology of the hero, the villain, the sage and the sidekick, all male dominated roles and all feed into how we see ourselves in the stories of our lives. I loved how the experiences of both Marianne and David intertwined, leading to fascinating discoveries about the island and just why it is that men are not to go there.

Despite the occasional heaviness of the subject matter the writing never felt so. It was actually for me an incredibly light and easy read, Skein Island was the first book I have read by this author but on the strength and ease of her storytelling they are definitely an author I would like to read more from. There is no fluff or unnecessary filler or purple prose. Skein Island is a book which did get under my skin, it left me thinking about roles in a different way and how we as a society have fallen into a rhythm, it also reinforces the telling of stories to keep dreams alive. The book covered quite a broad spectrum of genres, like each of the parts was it’s own individual tale leading to a climactic fantasy finale that I would have never seen coming from the opening pages, it really is quite something.

The UK paperback also has the addition of the short story “The Cold Smoke Declaration” which follows a new characters journey to the island but for rather different reasons.

I found Skein Island a great thought provoking read, which occasionally got a bit caught up in itself, but which challenged my perceptions and totally captured me in its pages.

4.5 *

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