Saturday, December 15, 2007

In My Skin by Kate Holden

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.


Ariel said...

Blakkat, I read that book years ago and I thought this was an excellent review. You told us succintly what you thought and why and made me reflect on what I thought ... and did it all intelligently and well ... so, don't be intimidated.

I totally agree with you that this is the pearl among the swine of this genre. It's good because it's written so well, not because of the subject - though that is pretty interesting, given the way she approaches it. It's clear that she has always been destined to write, isn't it? I loved her way with language in this book.

Anonymous said...

"In my skin" is NOT a novel.

redcap said...

Great review, Blakkat :) And as Ariel said, please don't feel intimidated. I'll look forward to reading more of your booky thoughts. I haven't read this one yet, but if I get the chance, I certainly will.

anon, blakkat clearly understands that In My Skin is not a novel. She just said that it read like one and it sounds to me as though she meant it as a compliment to the writer.

Pomgirl said...

I bought this book after reading Kate Holden's column in The Age, so I expected it to be well written, but it was the way she wrote about heroin which was most striking, and like you say "makes sure you understand the relentlessness of this friend and foe".

I really hope she writes a novel one day.

p.s. Is there any chance the settings on this blog would allow comments from people who don't have a google/blogger account, or don't want to use the one they have?

Milly Moo said...

GREAT review Blakkat, and it's now a book that not only have I heard of, but will now search out to read. The last thing you need to feel is intimidated, my friend!

redcap said...

sorry pomgirl! I was messing around the settings the other night and must have stuffed them up.

The Blakkat said...

Ariel, Redcap & Pomgirl,
Thanks for your vote of confidence - I won't be has hesitant to offer random reviews in the future! (so watch out!)

Anonymous (why?),
Mmmm... yes, I know it's a memoir -I think I made that fairly clear. If I used the word 'novel' too loosely then please refer to my disclaimer at the start and apologies for not being a purist when it comes to book reviews.

The Blakkat said...

And Milly Moo -sorry- I really appreciate your kind words :-)

R.H. said...

Drunkies I hope you'll pardon me (most people don't) but I can't see any value in this wail from a genteel little Mizz who took herself up shit creek and now wants a medal for it.
This dill created her own adversity; got herself on heroin, then laid on her back to pay for it. Wooh!- "forced" to become a stupid prostitute! How terrible! Poor dear.
Well pardon me, but why didn't she just try to get off the stuff?
Or was this 'masterpiece' -this trained-monkey university thesis- being thought out as she went along? That's what I suspect, after all, once you're taught dissertion it's impossible to stop.

Golly, how boring, this sort of thing has been done a million times, by commercial TV, magazines, etc. And especially (bless its little heart) by the darling old Truth Newspaper: I WAS A SEX SLAVE!
Goodness me. But I suppose it adds spice when its little star is one of your own: a bourgeois Mizz, giving her latte pals a thrill and a shock at the same time: "I WAS A PROSTITUTE! (READ ALL ABOUT IT!)


R.H. said...

And the review?

Very good.

redcap said...

Goodness rh, are you going for your advanced curmudgeon badge?

R.H. said...


I've already got it.

The Blakkat said...

Wow - I get what you're getting at RH, but a tad harsh, don't you think? Still I like the fact that you've got the... ahem... 'balls' to put it like that.

R.H. said...

Miss Blakkat I wish you hadn't said that.
And my balls are not just metaphor (how dare you).

Merry Christmas drunkards, and remember, when the booze is in the brains are out -but not with us.

R.H. said...

Happy New Year drunken darlings, and be assured, Uncle RH is always thinking of you. That's right. And ever rummaging in the Savers store of life, finding new ways and excuses -TO SAY: I love you.


Love is not just for Christmas.

kiki said...

i heard her on a radio interview and immediately admired her

she does not seek pity, she seeks awareness and desires to help others

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