'The Mirror' (Faber & Faber, 2014)
'Skinner's writing is beautiful, striking and precise. The Mirror and The Velvet Gentleman are fascinating, playful novellas. I loved them.' SJ Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep
Venice, 1511. In the convent of Sant’ Alvise, a young novice, Oliva, is about to take the veil and become a bride of Christ. When her world is shaken—first, literally, by an earthquake, and then, spiritually, by forces that threaten to change the convent for ever—she begins to question her faith and her future. When she agrees to sit for Signor Avílo, the renowned portrait painter with a sky-blue smock and a provocative manner, he brings with him a diabolical object: a mirror. And reflections can be dangerous.
Erik Satie—composer, dandy, eccentric—is dead. Told he must select a single memory to take with him into the afterlife, he finds himself in limbo with a community of the deceased, listening to ragtime, and looking back at his fifty-nine years on earth for its most precious moments. Evenings of absinthe at the Chat Noir? Friendships with his great contemporaries, Debussy and Ravel, Duchamp and Man Ray? Nights with Biqui, the trapeze artist, love of his life? And what of his great musical triumphs and disasters? His Gymnopédies, his Pieces in the Form of a Pear? How will he choose his own legacy before silent whiteness descends?
Told with playful elegance, these are two utterly original tales of art and devotion, of religious and creative fervour. They contemplate the eternal in different ways – one examining a life only just beginning, tentatively; the other a life lived without compromise as it reaches its close.
'The story trickles out daintily at first before building to a torrent; Skinner’s elegant prose is restrained and increasingly hypnotic. These two narratives are linked by one eternal question: why are we here?' Financial Times
'Skinner's portrait of Satie is lovingly researched and beautifully imagined.' Daily Mail
'The Velvet Gentleman is a most elegantly playful story of Erik Satie in not-quite-the afterlife (you have to read it) which entertains and ends too soon. The Mirror, the other novella, beguiles and seduces with its febrile convent atmosphere.' ✭✭✭✭✭ Laline Paull, author of The Bees (click here for the full Goodreads review)
'Bucking the trend for bulky, sweeping narratives, Skinner has produced two tightly crafted novellas with a dreamlike quality ... Two absorbing meditations on art and identity with a common thread: obsessive dedication to a calling and its effects, self-destructive or creative.' The Lady, Book of the Week
'The Velvet Gentleman is the biographical equivalent of keyhole surgery.' The Times
'There are tinges of the uncanny, strains of the gothic, to both stories. In each there are corridors and locked doors it would be best not to pry into. Skinner’s prose has the strangely contradictory quality of being so clear and crystalline that you feel it must be hiding something. It’s an effect that is, like the settings of both these highly unusual tales, creepingly claustrophobic.' ✭✭✭✭✭ Daily Telegraph (click here for the full review)
'The Velvet Gentleman is an uncanny cross-breed of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit'. The Independent
'These novellas are two meditations on life. They resonate in the reader's imagination in truly memorable ways, often for what is left unsaid. We carry away the sense of two rich lives: from the perspective of one life yet to be lived and another that has been fully and truly lived.' Dermot Bolger, Sunday Business Post
'The Mirror is a philosophical novel. The prose is poetic and beautiful, and almost creates a dream like mood. And yet it approaches its subject with a spare and clear reality, as if through the cold sharp lens of the mirror that glitters at the story's heart. I really enjoyed this novel. It lingered in my mind for days—and I was especially impressed with the author's allusions to colour; how colour might reflect the nature of our plights, our hopes and fears and destinies.' Essie Fox, author of The Goddess And The Thief, Elijah's Mermaid and The Somnambulist
'I just loved Oliva's voice and story, the whole world The Mirror manages to evoke. And then The Velvet Gentleman, in voice and style, was a complete volte face but, as I recovered from being jolted out of Oliva's world so shockingly and unexpectedly, an equally intriguing and compelling story.' Lucy Caldwell, author of The Meeting Point and All the Beggars Riding
'I am usually suspicious of books that mingle fiction and non-fiction, but The Velvet Gentleman is an exception—the idea so ingenious and Skinner's style so translucently clear.' Michael Holroyd, author of Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, Augustus John: A Biography and Bernard Shaw
'Elegant, intricate and other-worldly ... A richly provocative story of our faiths and choices.' Kerry Fowler, Sainsbury's Magazine
'Two extraordinary stories that resonate together, and stay in the mind long afterwards. Crescendo & limbo.' David Burnand, author of Stolen Hours
'I was so impressed with how the voices of Oliva and Satie achieved the thematic unity of the book. Oliva is a character whose past has to be forgotten in order for her to marry Christ, and so the narrative barely contains memory. Satie is a character who has tried to find presence in forgetting but is now asked to do nothing but remember ... The stark simplicity of Oliva's sentences capture the stark simplicity of her surroundings, and her surroundings are what make her. Satie's mercurial intelligence and witty aphorisms contrast sharply with the bare stage-set of purgatory, and he bursts with life.' David Savill, author of They Are Trying to Break Your Heart
'The British writer Richard Skinner has found new inputs in Erik Satie's creation in his dual/double narrative ‘The Mirror’. From the mundane to the imaginary, without adding anything, you just follow the stream of impressions, the silences that occur and the freedom in the small and simple ... through the feat of dissolving the real contours, Skinner manages to get the dream architecture to emerge, not unlike Satie's cartoon fantasies of Gothic cathedrals and hidden schemes.' Magnus Haglund, GöteborgsPosten
'Two substantial novellas – novels by any other name – make up this volume. A pair of texts is an unusual combination and seems to require them to reflect each other in some way, to be thematically connected. If there is a connection, it’s not obvious, but the two beautifully written stories are no less enjoyable for that. In the first, The Mirror, set in the early 16th century, a young woman, Oliva, prepares to become a nun. She has already lived in the convent in Venice for four years and is about to take the veil. While the arrival of an artist for whom Oliva is asked to sit ostensibly provides the focal event, the immersive evocation of the small community of nuns and their battle with the city authorities is captivating. In the second, The Velvet Gentleman, the eponymous gentleman is the composer Erik Satie, who narrates his own story from the afterlife. Changing personas with the elan of a proto David Bowie, Satie was an early surrealist, an impish eccentric, clinging to his childishness as the source of his capacity for wonder. A faithful and deeply affectionate portrait.' The Guardian
'...the contrast between [the two novellas] attests to what a fine and versatile writer Skinner is.' Herald Scotland, Paperback of the week (read the full review here)
'[The Velvet Gentleman] is a total delight!!! I enjoyed it HUGELY! It's most touching, elegiacally sad and beautifully written, Satie's soul in words.' Michael Finnissy, composer
'Thanks very much for the copy of your imaginative Satie book—the lovable, maddening man comes through 'crystal clear!'' Tom Phillips, artist & author of A Humument
'The Velvet Gentleman is a gorgeous and über original book.' Chloé J. Esposito, author of Mad
'The Velvet Gentleman is such a tender, affectionate portrait. What beauty.' Jay Griffiths, author of Tristimania
‘The Mirror actually contains two novellas: The Mirror and The Velvet Gentleman, with little in common (a quirk of publishing). The Mirror tells the story of a young nun-to-be in an Italian convent in 1511. Mild temptation; of life as yet unlived… One of the most striking elements is, as the above review in the Telegraph says, the ‘clear and crystalline prose’. It is a simple tale; the action depicted linearly, starkly; but this serves to give insight into the daily duties, sensual simplicity, and cloistered lifestyle. Disruptions: a painter and his mirror, politics of the church. I think of Diderot’s The Nun, I think of Ann Radcliffe (the uncanny, locked doors), of Samuel Richardson’s model Pamela (and Fielding’s Shamela). The Velvet Gentleman, the second novella contained within The Mirror, is a fictionalised account of Erik Satie. The structure is well-conceived: presenting Satie in the Afterlife, where he must choose one memory to treasure to move beyond Purgatory. This has a dual effect: of allowing Skinner to tell of Satie's life (highlights, friendship with Debussy, successes) and prompts the reader to analyse one's own life moments/highlights (which memory would I choose?), provoking emotional reaction. I am a little uncomfortable with fictionalised biography, but this ‘highlights reel’ works well. Both novellas feel cinematic in different ways; both deal with the weighing up of a life; both feel off-kilter. I preferred The Mirror, but read both quickly and enjoyably, gorging on it over a weekend, and largely agree with that positive Telegraph review.’ Laura Waddell
'These two well-researched pieces create two interior worlds of torment, one building to a horrifying climax and the other to a beautiful, visually pleasing one. Well-crafted, original, excellently told, they often seem oddly confined themselves, and whether this is a clever trick of narration or an unintended side-effect of their precision it is hard to tell. Erik Satie, though, in particular, is one of those compulsively drawn characters who will stay with you for quite a while after reading.' Andy Cochrane, As I Read blog (read the full review here)
'A Venetian nun and an eccentric composer: what can they possibly have in common? Quite a lot, as these two novellas show: a life of order and beauty, a quest for meaning. But their destiny will startle and move you in very different ways. I can say no more without spoiling your enjoyment!' Whichbook (read the full post here)
You can read a short extract from The Velvet Gentleman here.
You can read my essay about Erik Satie here.
You can buy a copy of The Mirror from Faber here
Or at Amazon here