Albert Sánchez Piñol, Cold Skin (Canongate, 2006)

A young man takes the job of weather observer on an island in Antarctica, hoping to escape civilization in the years following World War I. He hopes to find a nice, comfortable place to make into his hermit's home. Sadly, rest and solitude will be out of the question during the following year. On his first night on the island, the poor soul is attacked by little green beasts, hungry for human flesh. He barely survives, as it is near impossible to guard a rickety old shack from creatures with superhuman strength.

Then an opportunity for protection presents itself: the French lighthouse on the other end of the island. The nameless young man kidnaps the lighthouse keeper, Gruner's, own little green beast. Together, they battle the creatures at night from the top of the lighthouse, and sleep during the day, waiting for the year to end, bringing with it the ship carrying the next weather observer.

When you have nothing better to do, and no other females are in sight, little green beasts begin to look quite attractive. The young man, whom I will call Fred for convenience's sake, can't help but hear Gruner and his little green beast's moans of pleasure from where he sleeps downstairs. Fred regularly recounts the sounds, and describes in detail how he repeatedly "had his way with her" when Gruner wasn't watching.

Though Cold Skin is tantalizing, captivating and wonderfully written, there is far too much sexual content. There are only so many things to be said, it seems, and then one goes back to sneaking into the woods and removing one's clothing. Fred even finds a name for the beast, Aneris. Ah, what beauty! Her green skin is soft and hairless, her body is pure muscle, her body is beautifully sculpted and her eyes are such a wonderful, deep blue. . . . I can only read that so many times before rolling my eyes and sighing.

Still, despite the inappropriate content (children definitely should not read lengthy paragraphs on the matter), it was a delightful novel. For some reason or another, the details of raging war day in and day out with strange sea creatures, then the arguments between Fred and Gruner, are curiously interesting. Fred's narration throughout the novel gives the reader an insight on his personal battles and provides deep, let's-reflect-on-this comments. Two such sentences are the very first of the novel: "We are never very far from those we hate. For this reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love." It was only later explained exactly what Fred meant, but even so, isn't that a delicious way to begin a story?

The ending, though, could be better. It's one of those, the ones where the author believes it is much more interesting if he lets the reader make his own assumptions and his own ending. Cliffhangers can be great exercise for the imagination, and it can be quite a bit of fun, but I would greatly have enjoyed being given more information about Fred's future, considering the events he had endured. I truly believe the author thought it was a stylish way to end things, though it did not have the desired effect on me.

Albert Sánchez Piñol was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1965. He is an anthropologist and writer whose writings have appeared in several journals. Cold Skin, his first novel, was originally published in Catalan in 2003. It has been translated into fifteen different languages and has won the Ojo Critico Narrativa Prize. You may find information at these sites: here, here, and here.

[Claire Owen]