Firstly, before I actually get to the business of writing my two bob worth on this book, I'm not a confident book reviewer - especially given the quality of reviews the drunkards are accustomed to - I am intimidated, to put it bluntly. The thing is I really like reading and I really like a lot of books but I'm not very good at articulating what I like about particular books, so with that disclaimer in mind please read on...
In My Skin by Kate Holden made substantial ripples on the Australian book scene two years. As the title suggests, it is a memoir and it chronicles Kate's life as a heroin addict and prostitute, beginning with how she fell in with heroin in the first place to the predictable step of supporting her habit with prostitution. The meat of the novel is how she managed her heroin addiction and career as a sex worker. The ending, naturally, concludes with her becoming clean and starting a new chapter in her life - the one where she becomes a published author.
Last year I found a discarded (that should have clued me on) copy of Tracy Quan's Diary of a Manhattan Call. I wasn't very impressed. Sure the subject matter was engrossing in its own way but it was still chicklit built from fragments of Quan's life as a highclass hooker. Personally I found her style obvious and irritating. Quan is an average wordsmith but one who has had the life experiences to a write saleable book about. There has been a spate of this genre in recent years, too, and it is unfortunate that Holden's book was published amongst this whiff. Despite the pong, however, I picked up Holden's book a few times in the bookshop until one day, last month, I bought the damn thing.
From the first page it is apparent that Holden knows words and she's going to be very honest with you. She wants to tell you her story with candour and humour but she never tries to be ingratiatingly funny or clever about it. Although she is clever because her prose is very direct, yet carries just the right amount of whimsy and emotion to make you her friend, not her critic. Holden makes many references to her love of books and reading through out the novel - she makes no secret of her early desire to be a writer. Writing was always her first love and you feel right from the start that you are in the hands of a writer, not a savvy former prostitute who sold their story to the highest bidder. In My Skin reads like beautiful fiction, albeit fiction where the author has an intimate working knowledge of her subject matter. And on that note, if you've ever wanted to know the nuts & other rude bits of working in a brothel you'll find that, too. You do expect a no hold bars approach to this sort of book though, so the frank explicitness on the business of being a hooker is expected rather than being shocking or titillating.
The other strength of this memoir - the first being Holden's style - is its portrayal of heroin as a character in its own right. Without it becoming a putrid tale of squalid street woe, Holden makes sure you understand the relentlessness of this friend and foe. She does this without feeling sorry for herself or becoming hindsight preachy about it - which is quite masterful in itself.
Memoirs are not sold on the strength of their surprise endings and unexpected twists and in this sense In My Skin is a memoir by numbers. It's a straight forward story of the worst thing possible happening to somebody's daughter which has a redemptive and happy ending - but you knew that from the start. Holden really is that girl you think a life like that wouldn't happen to and she wants you to think that, but she also wants you to know that she was damn good at what she did, too. This book really is in the telling though and you come away from it with that satisfying feeling of having read a good book. Holden's style stands on its own - quite clearly her talent isn't the sum of being a drug addicted prostitute - which is why In My Skin shouldn't render her a one hit wonder. She is apparently working on a piece of historical fiction for her follow up novel and you just have the feeling that it will good, too - if not better than In My Skin.