A review by Nalini Haynes
Alice’s identical twin sister took a gun to school, shot 7 other students then killed herself. Since then, Alice has been ostracized and victimized by everyone in her town; even her own father doesn’t want anything to do with her. She worries that she’s the same as her sister. After the school shooting, she spent some time in a mental institution until she learnt to give the psychiatrist the answers he wanted.
As she’s going on one of her self-punishment walks instead of suffering through school, Alice sees her sister’s ghost. When they touch, they swap places: Alice in a dream or nightmare world and the ghost in Alice’s body.
Kell, the ghost, has a gang in the nightmare world. Alice pretends to be Kell while making mistakes that could get them all killed.
Meanwhile, Lux, a boy with a secret, and his monstrous-looking friend Ivan stalk Kell/Alice. They believe that by killing all of the images of the schoolgirl monster they can save everyone.
Alice’s experiences in the nightmare world help her work through her issues: does she really want to die? Who is the real monster? How much responsibility does she bear for her sister’s actions?
Alice’s portion of the narration is written as a diary with ‘I’ addressing ‘You’, her dead sister. She discusses self-harming including walking without water so she develops headaches, and cutting herself, and not protecting herself when someone approaches her from behind. This is powerful but it would have been more powerful without as much repetitive dwelling on internal angst.
Alice repeatedly refers to an event between herself and her sister a few days before the shooting. On the one hand, introducing a pivotal plot point late in a novel with no foreshadowing is cheating. On the other hand, repetitively referring to something happening ‘but I’m not going to tell you yet’ is irritating. Ultimately I felt this was a bit Shadow of the Wind. However, In the Skin of a Monster is not nearly as long nor nearly as repetitive as Shadow of the Wind. The key aspects of Monster‘s revelation could have held more potency in the novel if revealed early, justifying the self-loathing and doubt, rather than being a somewhat anticlimactic revelation when on the brink of resolution.
Overall, I think In the Skin of a Monster sits comfortably on a shelf with A Small Madness and My Sister Rosa thanks to mutual delving into psychopathology and mental illness although Monster suffers by comparison with Rosa. Monster‘s use of a fantasy trope to explore Alice’s issues and further her emotional growth is unusual; a form of Gestalt Therapy perhaps. I recommend In the Skin of a Monster to YA readers with associated trigger warnings.
Shivaun Plozza, author of the awesome debut novel Frankie, loves In the Skin of a Monster, counting it as the most underrated novel of last year. It’s included in the CBCA notables list for 2016.
Aurealis Award – Best Young Adult Novel, 2015 winner
Australian Book Design Awards – Tractor Best Designed Young Adult Book, 2016, short-listed
CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers, 2016, long-listed
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Format: paperback, 304 pages
Publisher: A & U Children (Allen & Unwin)