Under My Skin by James Dawson

Image result for under my skin james dawsonJames Dawson writes for a young adult audience, but I enjoyed his debut Hollow Pike a couple of years ago and had been meaning to try another of his books. Like Hollow Pike, Under My Skin is a teen horror novel with a sixth-form setting: mousy protagonist Sally Feather, bullied by the cool kids and painfully shy, stumbles into a tattoo parlour after being harassed by a sinister homeless man and suddenly decides, under the influence of the mysteriously persuasive receptionist, that a tattoo is the answer to all her problems.

And not just any tattoo. Sally's design of choice is Molly Sue, a vintage pin-up girl who represents everything that Sally is not - confident, sexy, daring, dangerous. But it soon transpires that having to hide Molly Sue from her deeply conservative parents is the least of Sally's worries. There's clearly more to Molly Sue than meets the eye - and of course, once you get a tattoo, you're stuck with it forever...

If, like me, you're interested in tattooing and tattoo culture, do be aware that there's almost no exploration of the significance or experience of being tattooed - indeed, Sally's tattoo parlour experience actually bears little resemblance to reality. Not that this matters, as the reasons for this do subsequently become clear as the tension builds at the end of the story.

What I liked most about Under My Skin is the rejection of female stereotypes. When Sally is transformed from a nerd whose mum buys her clothes into a badass bleached blonde rock chick, it's made clear that her new look doesn't have to mean making a choice between 'ugly and deep, or pretty and shallow'. The ultimate conclusion is essentially that girls don't have to decide if they're 'virgin or vamp', and it's only by understanding this that Sally might just manage to beat the terrible evil that threatens to to overwhelm her.

I also enjoyed the friendship between Sally and her friends, Jennie and Stan, and the acknowledgement, through Jennie's relationship with her boyfriend Kyle, that teenage relationships can be every bit as dysfunctional and destructive as adult ones. There's plenty of diversity among the characters too, which is great to see. Dawson goes out of his way to highlight and condemn the lazy, casual homophobia that's still rife among some teenagers, and the inevitability of the class's best singer standing no chance of getting the lead role in the school musical if she's heavily overweight, but manages never to be patronising in the way he addresses these topics. There are smart, witty observations and entertaining dialogue throughout.

Less successful, for me, were some of the supporting characters. Sally's parents are suburban caricatures who just didn't ring true, particularly in their dialogue, and despite an attempt to point out that even school bullies are insecure kids at heart, Sally's nemesis Melody and her henchwomen are straight from Heathers or Mean Girls, the boy of Sally's dreams is a cardboard cut-out school hunk - plus, the resolution of the romantic element is exactly what you know it will be right from the start.

As far as the horror goes, it's fun and a little schlocky rather than genuinely creepy - think Buffy and Point Horror rather than full-on terror (indeed, the protagonist's favourite TV show is a Buffy-style American import called Satanville). It's entertaining, but I might have preferred a few more real scares.

That said, I'm not by any means this book's target audience: I'm pushing forty, and I wasn't especially interested in reading about teenage relationships even when I was an actual teenager, so it was probably inevitable that certain aspects of Under My Skin wouldn't hold much appeal for me. Under My Skin doesn't have quite the 'crossover' appeal of some YA novels, but that's not by any means a criticism - Dawson writes very well for his intended readership. Some of the cliches of teen literature can be found in this book, but they're subverted often enough for me to happily recommend this for the teenagers in your life.


  1. This book actually looks really interesting! I'll have to give it a chance


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