Mysterious Skin is certainly not a novel that is approached lightly.
Scott Heim’s coming-of-age story centres around two young boys who are connected through a life-changing event, and it explores the very different ways they are affected. Heim certainly doesn’t hold back in this novel, and chooses to explore some very dark themes in the protagonists’ journey to realise who they are.
The story begins with a young Brian Lackey being found bleeding in the crawl-space beneath his house, seeming to have lost five hours of his life. After years of strange dreams, he eventually he becomes convinced he is the victim of an alien abduction, and devotes his life to discovering the truth. The second protagonist, Neil McCormick, is fully aware of the events that led to this moment, and realises he is the only one who can help Brian deal with his missing time.
Neil is certainly the anti-hero of the novel. His life is centred around the events of his childhood, and the love he believes he has found in his baseball coach. Fast-forward ten years, and Neil, having come to terms with his sexuality, works as a teenage hustler with dreams of something more. He moves to New York with his soul-mate Wendy but eventually falls back into his old ways, landing himself in more trouble than ever. Some of the events that take place with the New York “johns” are genuinely some the most harrowing the book, and that’s saying something. Neil is a very complex character with an incredibly strong sense of agency, he knows exactly what he wants and is willing to manipulate anyone to get it. He also has a soft side however, taking his friend Eric and Brian under his wing to guide them through their own troubles. Neil is wise beyond his years, and loyal to a fault, and for me was the break-out character of the novel.
Brian however is a sweet kid. He deals with his experience by becoming introverted, and after his dad walks out on the family becomes rooted to his home town. His inability to move on from his supposed alien abduction forces him to become obsessed, eventually befriending another abductee; Avalyn Friesen. With her help Brian is able to uncover more details in his dreams, leading him to Neil. The closing scenes between the two characters are some of the most emotive I have ever read, and it is incredibly satisfying for Brian to finally find closure. Brian’s quiet obsession perfectly balances out Neil’s explosive voice, and their narratives are linked in complex and interesting ways. They are yin and yang, light and dark.
A special mention should be given to the supporting cast too; Wendy, Eric, the moms. It is with their help that Neil and Brian are brought together, and are able to move on from their traumatic childhood. Something from which they can all benefit.
I think this book can only really be summed up with my opening statement; do not approach it lightly. But I don’t say that as a warning, simply guidance. The novel deals with its themes in a mature and sensitive way, and is certainly thought-provoking literature. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have read it, read it again.
Thanks for reading!