Book Review: Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol (ASP)
August 27th 2018/Leighton Dean
Some Mild Spoilers…
Cold Skin is the first person account of a young weather official, running from his horrid memories of a war. Unfortunately, he runs to the ass end of the world where he replaces his inner demons with real ones. In a battle for his life and his sanity, he finds refuge in the island’s lighthouse where he meets the lighthouse keeper, Gruner, who has long since lost the plot himself.
My wife bought this book for me from Hay on Wye before we got married and it sat on my shelf, for what could be six years, maybe longer. Clearing the air, even books I deem interesting enough to bring home from the store, may end up on the shelf of never-read. This book, however, I took one look at the moody cover. A gold and bleak landscape reminiscent (to me) of a Bronte’s depiction of Northern England and I did what everyone does, but should never to do. I judged the book by its cover. Believing it was some supernatural romance, the chauvinistic white male in me rolled his eyes and the book went onto the shelf. It didn’t even warrant a standing position; I placed it horizontal atop the existing collection.
It remained there, collecting dust until I saw a movie trailer by the same name. No. Fucking. Way. I grabbed the book, blew across the cover and by karma did I cough. It was the same book. Above the golden bleakness was a singular, amphibious eye judging just as I had all those years ago. There was even a warning on the front cover from David Mitchell, “A troubling, hammering and glorious novel.” It also sums up the book in a far more concise manner than I dare attempt. Since Cold Skin’s movie release, new publications have embraced the amphibious monsters that barrage our hero on a nightly basis. That said, watch the trailer at your peril. It won’t outright spoil the story, but it revealed enough to help me solve an integral twist in the plot long before I would have wanted to in the book.
The first few chapters moved slow, this isn’t a pacing issue. In fact the pacing throughout is fantastic. I had just finished Fatherland, and I found jumping from third person perspective to first a little jarring. As Cold Skin is a period piece, it took a little longer to absorb the literary style (I’ll note here that they also translated the book from Spanish). The first sentence is stunning and the prose continue to impress throughout. However, while Cold Skin is set in our past, most likely around the era of British Colonialism – it’s never confirmed and ASP treats anything off the island as a dreamlike memory that our protagonist can no longer grasp.
Sometimes, I found the descriptions so good I stopped reading just to examine what I’d just read. Albert Sanchez Pinol, can write. “We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love.” As a writer, I often stop to consider another writer’s style. Whether I’d make the same choice. As mentioned, this is a period piece and what Albert has done, is unite the period modern prose. One shows the courtesy of an executioner… for instance, projects a perfect image while keeping within the thought process of the character.
The overall story is unique enough to stand out (like a lighthouse perhaps) from an ocean of monster stories. This isn’t a straight horror but a dissection of survival and human brutality. There are aspects of House on the Borderland (W.H. Hodgson), I Am Legend (Richard Matheson) and even George A. Romero’s ‘Of the Dead’ series of films (I’ll go into more detail when I write a spoiler filled review). For now, just know that ASP has enough of an original perspective so that he can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best genre writers.
I can’t say the ending satisfied me, and whenever I thought I knew where the story was headed, it went another way. There aren’t any plot twists per-say, the story followed the characters, and the book pushes these two men to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. I disagreed with several their decisions, sometimes even repulsed by them. But then, I am not them - I’m sitting comfortably in my house, writing a review.
Cold Skin is a slim book, it won’t take you long to read but it will stay in your head for far longer.