An unfamiliar landscape – Skins (2002)

Skins, by Western Australian author Sarah Hay, was an unexpected find – I picked it up by chance from my local bookshop in December, and put it aside because I was afraid that it would be a confronting read; not something I was ready for at the time. But I began reading it a day or two ago and have just finished it; I was immediately hooked by the tension and suspense that pervades the novel from the very beginning.

Skins is primarily the story of Dorothea Newell, an English immigrant who, with her parents and six siblings, settled in the burgeoning town of Albany on King George Sound. In 1835, she leaves Albany and sails with her sister and her sister’s new husband for Tasmania, but they are wrecked a few hundred miles along the coast and end up instead on Middle Island, at a sealer’s camp. Middle Island is not far from the present town of Esperance, but at the time there was no settlement along the coast east of the Sound.

This is not a novel about shipwreck or survival off the land. Rather it is about the tense relationships between rough men and the few women, both Aboriginal and English, in their midst. There is very little happiness in the relationships on the island. Nobody really wants to be there, and the men are violent and possessive, fighting over women, money and loyalties. From the beginning I felt a sense of foreboding, as Dorothea and her sister navigate the treacherous tensions on the island.

I was surprised, though, with where the story led me: those characters whom I had expected to be honest and loyal turn out otherwise, while the sealer Black Jack Anderson, a figure of fear and violence, strikes up a relationship with Dorothea that is unexpectedly tender. The story is partly told by one of the sealers, young James Manning. I at first exepected him to be on Dorothea’s side by virtue of being given his point of view alongside hers. It does not turn out this way, however; he is distrustful of women and angry at his situation. He befriends Dorothea’s brother Jem, and this alliance is part of what eventually leaves Dorothea estranged from her siblings and relying instead on Anderson.

The novel is interspersed with Dorothea’s thoughts and memories as an old woman fifty years later. I found this plot device awkward and by the end of the book I was beginning to wonder what purpose it served. These sections seemed to add nothing to the key narrative of the novel, that of Dorothea’s experience on Middle Island and her longed-for return to King George Sound. But this is because I did not realise until I reached the end of the novel that Skins is based on historical records and that Dorothea was a real person. Thus the fragments from fifty years later are relevant in giving the reader some idea of what happened to Dorothea later in life, even though the narrative would have remained strong without them.

I was struck throughout Skins by the evocation of a landscape that is not wholly unfamiliar to me, but yet which takes on entirely new meanings when seen through very different eyes. These days, traversed by bitumen roads, interspersed by farming communities and criss-crossed by hiking tracks, the land around Albany and Esperance is beautiful; it is not a landscape that frightens me. For the early settlers in Skins, the land is something else entirely: the bush is dense, with the few settlements along the coast reachable only by sea. The bush is by turns bleak and endless, or intensely brilliant in the southern light. It is nothing like the land that Dorothea’s family knew in England, and nothing like what they expected to find in Australia.

I found myself rushing through this novel in my eagerness to know what would happen, and the awkwardness of shifts in time in the narrative – from the 1830s to the 1880s – seemed to be a hindrance as I read. But Skins tells a powerful story and does not hold back in imagining the brutality that women, men and animals were subjected to in the lawless, isolated environment of Western Australia’s southern coast.

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