'Skin' is set, for the most part, in Goa with brief interludes in California and Paris. It deals mainly with the lives of the descendants of Portuguese Catholics who colonized the region. We accompany the main character, Pagan Miranda de Flores, on a journey of 'self-exploration' back to her ancestral home in Goa. Pagan (of the green eyes) has spent part of her childhood in Berkeley, California. Her paternal family has effectively disowned her Goan father upon his marriage to her American mother. After her parents die in a plane crash Pagan is shuttled between her relatives in Goa and America. Thus she doesn't know much about her Goan family or roots.
At the beginning of the story Pagan receives word that her domineering paternal grandmother is ailing and is summoned to her bedside in Goa. During her stay, Pagan visits other relatives including her old ayah, born of a long line of ayahs of African descent, who starts to tell Pagan stories about each of her reprobate ancestors. We learn that one of Pagan's ancestors was a slave-trader who created the family's wealth by capturing and trading slaves from the East African coast. A narrative snapshot of his grand old mansion and way of life follows which reminds one irresistibly of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. We are then treated to short descriptions of each succeeding generation: a mish mash of oppressive and eccentric masters and mistresses, more 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' with some 'Roots' thrown in for good measure. Interspersed in all this is a parallel history of the Ayah's ancestors, starting with wrongfully enslaved medicine woman Nzinga Nganga, who passes on tribal secrets and powerful magic down the generations. Stories about each of the ancestors are interspersed with flashbacks of Pagan's own upbringing in the US of A, complete with vivacious yet self-centered mother who has an affair with Pagan's uncle out of boredom, assorted nasty cousins, an aunt who is a babysitter and some history thereof.
Much of the story has been related in flashbacks and with an interesting use of present tense. In the beginning of the novel, a large number of relatives are confusingly introduced in one expository chunk in the manner of a history lesson. A family tree on the inside cover would have been helpful. At one point Pagan is supposed to be writing a letter to her boyfriend back in California on her impressions of Goa but the writing switches mysteriously from first person narrative to third person description somewhere in the middle. Either Ms. Mascarenhas doesn't have a good ear for spoken conversation or she gets completely lost in her own writing. Such switches are apparent all over the book, sometimes in the same paragraph.
The characters and their actions are completely stereotypical. They are one-dimensional and poorly developed, often relying on a single attribute for their characterization. A character cannot merely enjoy horse riding; she is referred to as 'carrying on riding about on horses like a wild Arabian in this untamed and uncivilized jungle complete with hair flying unbound in the wind'. People seldom speak in such long sentences. Another character is not only mean and fat but he also 'shovels her careful preparations through his plump, greedy mouth making curious grunting noises like a scavenging animal as he masticates'. We are given all this information in a single sentence. It appears that Ms. Mascarenhas does not want to risk leaving anything to the reader's unreliable imagination. Thus her characters look more like caricatures than real people. That none of them resonate or have much of an impact on the reader is hardly a surprise.
Similarly while all the elements of a really good family drama are present in the story, that mysterious alchemy that absorbs a reader into the tale and marks good story telling is absent. Ms. Mascarenhas prefers to reveal her characters by 'telling' us about them rather than letting them 'show' us through their own actions. However all the elements for a good melodrama are present much like the ingredients of a good masala; mild child slapping, a conspiracy of silence, mean aunts, meaner cousins, a remote yet loving father, confusion and mystery surrounding assorted children's birth and parentage, an avaricious and lecherous slave-master who is fittingly punished by lingering impotence and four generations of faithful, self-sacrificing, African-tribal-medicine-practicing ayah's. For a slim novel of 257 pages, that's a lot of characters.
The plot is filled with convenient coincidences and some belabored twists to ensure fleshy revelations -- did someone tell Ms. Mascarenhas they were mandatory? (Question: Why on earth would one tear off all of one's clothes and then put on a single man's shirt while chasing a renegade foreman who has kidnapped a pair of babies, only to remove that single garment and tie it on one's head to ford a river during the course of the rescue only to discard even that (Why? It wasn't even wet?) when the rescue team shows up? Answer: So that the gaping locals get a glimpse of 'the most magnificent pair of breasts ever as she stepped from the boat a baby in each hand' of course, which then live on and on in legend....).
There are some glaring inaccuracies regarding the Hindu religion. For example, the author asserts that the Hindu Goddess 'Kali decapitated her husband Shiva and danced joyously on his corpse waving his head in one hand and a sword in the other.' She then proceeds to suggest that the Goddess Kali originated in Africa. These are factual errors and should not be propagated. The headless body, that Goddess Kali is popularly portrayed as dancing on, belongs to the demon Mahishasura, not her husband.
There are some well-developed interludes that entertain but the novel itself has a choppy and uneven feel to it. A well-kept secret is revealed in the final pages of the novel but the author, in my opinion, may have lost most readers well before reaching that point. For a so-called voyage of self-exploration the main character Pagan, apart from isolated mentions of 'slipping into her ethnic skin,' doesn't appear to have evolved much over the course of the novel. Overall, one gets a strong impression that a few good anecdotal scenes have been patched into a narrative with pages of writing that look and read like unedited writing exercise material.
In summary: It is clear that Margaret Mascarenhas has some promising material to convey through this novel but one cant help wishing she had spent some time on planning exactly how she wanted to present it before rushing to publish. This novel will hold limited appeal for Goan residents and as a nostalgia trip for the descendants of Portuguese Catholics but not much more.
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