The debut novel, Skin Deep, by award-winning short story writer, Gary Kemble, published by Echo Publishing (who kindly sent me a review copy – thank you very much) is a ripper of a read. Not being familiar with Kemble’s work, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the promotional blurb announced the novel was cross-genre. I have had mixed experiences with cross-genre novels (no pun intended) so worried I might be a little disappointed, especially as the blurb set my expectations high. What I read was a page-turning, exceptionally well-written, tale of regret, deception, betrayal, politics, war, corruption at the highest levels and all with a marvellous supernatural bent that evokes time, place and people with richness and depth.
Journalist Harry Hendrick, once a star student at the university where he did his journalism degree, who because of a major mis-step early in his career is stuck working for the a local Brisbane newspaper (having been rejected by all the major ones, including the “Brisbane Mail” – a thinly disguised Courier Mail, the paper for which I’ve written for over 16 years!). When he wakes one morning after a particularly wild night to find himself sporting an odd tattoo, he is unable to explain when or how he came about it, believing he must have been incredibly wasted not to recall. When other tattoos start appearing on his body, accompanied by vivid and horrific dreams, dreams that include olfactory and taste sensations as well, Harry knows something fantastical is happening to him. But who can he tell? Who would believe him? Not the girlfriend who has just dumped him, the attractive reporter at the Chronicle where he works or his patient boss. As for his best mate, Dave, he’s likely to think he’s mad. Harry isn’t convinced he’s not.
When the dreams intensify, and the tattoos appear with alarming regularity, telling their own gruesome version of the events Harry experiences night after night, he understands something major is afoot, something that involves not only the story that almost had him kicked out of university and discredited as a serious journalist years earlier, but one that involves wild and dangerous magic, a desperate desire for revenge and extraordinarily powerful people who will stop at nothing to ensure no-one lives to repeat the tale they’ve worked so hard to bury.
From the first page, this book gripped and didn’t let me go. Kemble is a terrific writer and his evocation of place, particularly, is outstanding. It’s not just Brisbane (which I know and love and smelt, felt and imagined as I read), but the surging seas off the coast of Australia, the dry, barren lands of the Middle East and even the interiors of houses and office buildings as well as landscapes. Likewise with people. Harry (along with the other characters in the book) is flesh and blood and his fear and confusion as events overtake him are visceral.
I don’t want to say too much for risk of spoiling the plot except to say that this political thriller-cum-action-crime-supernatural novel is fabulous. My only reservation is the cover. I don’t think it does justice to the contents and certainly, I never would have picked it up. The title is so apt and tantalizing and yet the vague image of smoky squiggles just doesn’t cut it for this reader and if it as the same effect of repelling other potential ones, then it’s to their detriment as they’d miss out on a great novel.
A fantastic debut from a terrific writer. I cannot wait for his next book.