The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

I first read this novella over two years ago, courtesy of the lovely people at Unsung Stories, one of the finest British independent purveyors of weird fiction today. I very much enjoyed it at the time, so when Titan Books told me they were publishing it for the first time in America, I leapt at the chance to revisit the work of one of my favorite little-known (for now) speculative fiction authors, Aliya Whiteley.

And it’s really weird with a re-read seeing what you focused on the last time compared to what you elided, and how things hit you differently after a span of time and experiences. In The Loosening Skin’s alternate universe, humanity moults every seven years or so, shedding with each worn skin the attachments — primarily romantic, but often to their surroundings and modes of life — they’d accumulated while wearing it. For most people, this means a redirection of purpose and often a reevaluation of their lives to date; for a smaller number, this means a dramatic shift in lifestyle. It’s almost universally acknowledged that couples will split up when one moults: there may be a lingering friendship or sense of companionship, but most find the thought of staying with a pre-moult partner physically revolting. All the feelings of love are gone with the moulting, oddly enough staying in the shed skin and accessible for anyone to touch. Most people burn their moultings because of this. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a thriving, quasi-legal market in discarded skins.

Rose Allington has an even more extreme reaction than most to shedding her skin, which she does more often than the average person and usually in times of great stress. After landing a dream job as bodyguard to superstar actor and aspiring director Max Black, she’s amazed to find herself falling in love with him, and he with her. Max is determined to keep their love going despite the odds, and resorts to all sorts of dubious medications to keep them both from moulting. Rose plays along until the night she splits her skin and abruptly leaves a devastated Max behind.

Several years later, Max comes looking for her again, having heard that she’d become a private investigator and needing her new professional services. Someone has stolen his moulted skins and she’s the only one he trusts to get them back while keeping it all hush hush. But the years and her experiences shutting down stomach-turningly illegal skin trade activities have made her a very different person from the Rose he once loved, which they’ll both discover to their sorrow.

Since I already knew where the plot was going this time, my brain was less preoccupied with the shifting time lines, allowing me to better process our characters’ complicated feelings and doings as they sought in their own imperfect ways to deal with the end of love. Interestingly the horrifying reveal at the warehouse felt less impactful to me this time around, even as I felt more heartbroken at how Rose and Max’s relationship ended for good. I was also far more forgiving of the coda with Mik, the youngest of a group of six lovers whose story captured the public imagination. He was still awful and adolescent, but his bumbling attempts to sort out both his and Rose’s lives added even more dimension to an already deep meditation on the seemingly finite arc of love. As with my previous read, I wasn’t necessarily suaded to the idea that love inevitably ends, but I did find more to think about this go-round, both in the emotions and in the sci-fi.

This American printing also includes a short story set in the world of TLS, further expanding on the everyday lives, moral philosophies and horrifying criminality of a world with such an intrinsic difference from ours. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading TLS, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of this, and perhaps giving it a re-read, as I did, after some time has passed. It’s just as good the second time around, and impressive in the way it brings different aspects of this life-altering physiology — and extended metaphor for the lifespan of love — to the fore.

The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley was published February 23rd 2020 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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