The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

I did not love this nearly as much as the book that first introduced Aliya Whiteley’s genius to me (The Arrival Of Missives — go pick it up, it’s amazing,) but it was still an incredibly deep and powerful meditation on an important aspect of the human condition, examined through a sci-fi what-if filter. In the case of The Loosening Skin, that aspect is love and the filter is this: humankind moults off its skin every seven years or so, shedding with that skin all manner of prior attachments. Primarily, this involves romantic love, with often devastating consequences. Changes can also be found in more mundane preferences, such as career or taste in personal furnishings. Regardless, entire systems of belief and coping have sprung up around this aspect of human biology that forces emotional along with physical renewal.

Rose Allington is our heroine. She suffers from Extreme Moult Syndrome, a condition where she moults much more frequently than every seven years and often in times of extreme duress. After being discharged from the RAF, she finds a job as bodyguard to Hollywood superstar Max Black. Almost in spite of herself, she falls deeply in love with him, a feeling he returns with fervor. Max believes in pills and the power of medical science to stave off moulting, but Rose thinks it’s all quackery. When her condition strikes once more and she leaves him, he is far more devastated than he lets on.

Fast forward several years and Max has tracked Rose down in order to ask for help: someone has stolen his old, very valuable skins and is likely going to sell them to the highest bidder. Old skins retain the emotions of their former wearers, accessible to the touch, and Max is understandably leery of being exploited like this. Rose reluctantly agrees to take the case, and soon finds herself tangled back up in a world of horrors she’d sought to outrun with each shed skin turned to ash in her past.

TLS is a poignant examination of what it means to leave love behind. Moulting is a terrific physical manifestation of the emotional process, and I was completely drawn in by the almost fatalistic notion that romantic love must always die. I don’t necessarily believe or agree with that — I personally feel that love evolves between people and, as with any evolution, survives and grows stronger or withers away — but it’s fascinating to see a world where the maxim holds true, and the lengths that people will go to in order to hold on to love. I also straight up loved the sci-fi, even as the criminality that sprang up around the moulting made me feel a bit queasy. That factory scene was especially chilling.

What didn’t really work for me was the bit with Mik, and his fluctuating views on others. His feelings at the end felt far more adolescent than the feelings he displayed in the flashback scenes, or even earlier in his quest for Rose. Since he’s pretty much our viewpoint character for the last part of the book, it’s a rather disconcerting way to end an otherwise excellent novel.

TLS was sent to me by its original, British publisher Unsung Stories because of our mutual admiration for Ms Whiteley’s work. I’ll be reviewing some of their other books in the near future as well, so stay tuned!

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