Sloughing the skin

About the novel...

Whilst breathing new life into the renovation of an old stone cottage the central character of the novel penetrates the minds and lives of people in a small, rural community in Brittany, and in so doing morphs into a new sense of self. She and her husband, accompanied by an enigmatic artisan, work with stone, wood, water, and clay reshaping a new home, a new life.

Among their new friends are an American couple who have international business interests in antiques and Fine Art. On the other hand, their neighbours Michelle, Bernard, and Claude are farmers, like their ancestors who worked the land for centuries. For Michelle ‘C’est le destin’ is her constant refrain, her philosophy. For others in the novel their focus is often more on the shaping force of human intervention.

Often filled with humour, drama, as well as the mysterious, poetic ‘pull’ of the Breton land and culture, the novel unearths some of the ‘dark’ sides of human nature.

The voice of Death whispers all around. Sometimes the deaths are natural. At other times an age old story of crime and violence seeps into the pages.

The novel is full of surprises; evident in its unfolding is also a sensitivity to the skills, the sorrows, the hopes, the dreams of people.


Excerpts from ‘Sloughing the skin’

“ Lauren de Berenger put a thick, freshly warmed, white bath towel on to a stool close to the shower before checking she had all the necessary equipment for a good ‘rub down’, as she generally informed Brad over the phone, when he was off on yet another of his business trips. Everything was there in that gleaming suite to ensure a satin smooth finish to skin which, these days, she admitted to herself, seldom received any other treatment. How could it when he was away so often?
    To some extent Brad’s wife mirrored her husband’s Mazarinian ‘performance’ management. Her ‘show’ was produced, however, in the detail of her high maintenance: her immaculate make–up and in–depth body grooming down to the last splash of colour on her smallest, finely manicured toe-nail. Her sartorial elegance displayed a particular penchant for black: the perfect backcloth – as she often pronounced with dramatic ease – for coconut milk pearls, or deliriously well–cut diamonds, plus a few other trinkets Brad bestowed regularly on his pliant puppy.
   Of course, she never really looked in the mirror for, had she, there she would have have surely observed a character who was the very antithesis of his mother – at least when in Brad’s company. Strangely, during soirées or afternoon rambles with her own friends she closely resembled her mother–in–law’s witty, animated, often erudite remarks and drollery, underscored with an undying belief that women’s lives could encompass pregnancy but also so much more.
   Once, perhaps, she had been Athena incarnate. Meeting Brad at the Embassy in Paris had changed all that. ”

“ Slowly, cautiously I crept around, often oblivious of the others accompanying me, fearing sometimes that one of the parched, worm–eaten, cobweb–ridden beams would fall on me; or that an old floorboard, equally riddled with worm or other holes, would collapse under me. Tufts of wiry hair and other weird fragments poked out of cracks between serrated stones in the walls which someone had – without success or skill – attempted to point. The result was akin to chicken–shit splattered here and there; or else chewing–gum podginned into any available orifice.
   ‘Little children pulled their hair out in huge clumps, my dear. That’s what my friend told me,’ Gran used to say. ‘In that Soviet Russia place. I hope you never see starvation like that, my love. We saw a bit... with our coupons...’ ”

“ Water became a prominent issue in my mind, my general daily activity, and in my quiet reflections. Once walls were stripped out of the area downstairs in the house, producing two very large rooms, the pipe for the water was tied to the wall with some rope. It hung there ominously like an Egyptian snake with head held high, arched back... ready to spit. Below it was seated permanently a plastic bucket full of water, eagerly awaiting dirty workmen’s hands and, subsequently, used for mixing with cement. But that was for the future... ”

But the caravan, for me was also a watchtower, a scene of quiet contemplation: of the present and the past; of people, here, at home, and elsewhere in the world. Of Claude, in particular... Of his mother...

Gran says the soldiers where her friend’s family came from spent all day... and night... up wooden towers, just watching the men, the women and children digging away... And then they sent the grain away to fill other bellies, but not theirs! After that they watched the wooden crosses, their number augmenting daily... on and on they stretched like charcoaled scarecrows, reaching painfully into the translucent iciness of a Siberian sky.

“ At such times you try your very best to avoid use of the chemi-khazee, better known as a portable toilet, and located in that den of iniquity – the barn or grange. Especially a barn that bears traces of all sorts of moss–grown, discarded paraphernalia: broken bottles, shabby, dilapidated chairs, furred–up jam jars, rusting car wheels or number plates; tatty, mouldy old cupboards; or the relics of an old toilet now fitted over what would have been a fosse for cattle shit and urine. To be avoided! Yes, even in daylight! ‘What–ifs’ definitely emerge. You almost feel yourself submerged in slimy slurry. What if something awful happened to Brigitte here? What if...?
   It is at twilight, though, when such places are very spooky.... It is even worse when you realise how everything around seems to echo! Then you feel your own skin contort like Munch’s ‘Scream’. So you resort to a quick pee just behind the caravan, out of sight of the neighbours. Out of sight of Claude! Then, lo and behold, even the stream you have personally created takes on a life of its own as it meanders, snakes... on, on to... just in front of the bloody caravan door! ”

Yes, even now the sea whips around other women’s lives in Brittany, shaping their lives in vague, uncertain ways, contorting them sometimes into forms perhaps only Camille Claudel could shape or even understand. Twisted, ragged remnants of their former selves weighed down by the toil, trouble and torment of their often shortened lives, cemented now in the annals of history. Women’s tears, stained, embittered even by men–folk in their lives. Women’s destiny sculpted by the sea or by men’s decisions stamped with sorrow.

“ Perception rapidly puckers at such times. In its furrow lie all manner of ancient memories ready to clamber out when stirred by the slightest creak or squeak, distilling only to a vague semblance of normality when a weary body finally surrenders, round about dawn, to a brief, yet deep sleep. ”

...the slow denuding of all human dignity as he peeled back the very essence of my life, my body. Sloughing my skin! Down, down to the bare bones of Phil and me, of what it means to be ‘me’, ‘him’, ‘us’. A space invasion...

“ His father blinked rapidly. His thin lips were still smiling faintly: a forced smile, a frightened smile; a smile that hung on desperately to that flower–stem he undoubtedly sucked between those wily, cotton skein lips in better times – all reflected in the eyes of his wife; his own now lifeless – dead fish in a stagnant pond. ”

“ How do you expect me to know? Guess! God! How long have you been making my coffee for me? The usual curt reply lashed out from Claude’s mumbling lips, curling like a pair of contesting worms as they engaged in their scatological outpourings. ‘Merde! Merde!’ His foot kicked out almost involuntarily, knocking over the flimsy, wooden chair opposite. ”

He keeps gazing down there at the garden. I’ve heard some watch their prey carefully, before they pounce. They lie in wait... Shadowmen. Others are just opportunistic: a door ajar, they slip in just in case.... Just in case there’s a chance to exercise their hateful, hubristic trade: your flesh, your screams for...for... their insatiable lust. A horrific, sadistic exchange! One where the ‘game’ is decidedly unequal. And that’s how they see you, their distorted construct; their conception of the meaning of life! Just ‘game’: of chance desires, of ‘gibier’... meat... having their fill, their thrill... their snatched moment in their life... of your life... often, usually ‘her’ life...

“ Rennes is a vibrant city, capital of Brittany, scene of much ‘sloughing of skin’, past and present. ‘Change’ – if not ‘revolution’ – seeps through its ancient roads, its ruelles. It is, moreover, flowing with that group – that curious mass of aspirant change or renaissance – otherwise known as students. Streets, cafés and bars can be seen teeming like ants with them during the lecture season, when, that is, their individualist corps communs aren’t littering bulging lecture halls.
   For Serge Junior it was a lure he could not resist. No matter how he grappled with his grandmother’s inculcation of Catholic spirit in him, Milton’s Comus won the day: Virtue vented its spleen as Vice flew in through his window. He was hooked: on the cafes; on the women; on the drugs; on money and power. With each new ‘fix’ his stature grew, as did the coterie of ‘hangers–on’. ”

...Proella–man stands there: a crumpled, crinkled mass like a message bearing bad news rolled into the palm of a hand. Ah! Those unwanted words! The loathsome lines lie there. Silent. Breathless.
   The ritual begins.
   The old man knocks three times on the pane.
   Then he enters, pronouncing the dreaded words, signalling the commencement of a huge gathering and simulated burial.
   The wailing of local women fills the speckled night sky.
   Another sailor has died.

Charity Donation

– A donation will be given from some of the sales of this novel to WaterAid, Save the Children, and MIND in the Borough of Caerphilly

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Dr. Sonja Strode...
Sloughing the skin by Dr Sonja Strode
Doctor Sonja Strode
Publisher: tuesdaybooks.co.uk

No. of pages: 460
ISBN: 978–2–9540755–2–5
Paperback: £7.99

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