Books read in 2021 – 36. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim.

Genre: LGBT, Abuse

Narrative Style: First person from a number of different points of view. Chronological

Published: 1995

Rating: 5/5

Format: paperback.

Synopsis: At eight years old, Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space in his house with no memory of the last few hours. His last memory is playing baseball. The next evening, he sees what he believes to be a UFO. Over the years, he loses more time and he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by aliens, more than once. Neil McCormick is on Brian’s baseball team and he knows exactly what happened to Brian and it has nothing to do with aliens. Brian realises that Neil is the only one who can help him fill those missing hours so he tracks him down.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years ago but I’ve been aware of it for about six or seven years.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. From the very first, it is apparent that something terrible has happened to Brian Lackey and, although he cannot remember it, it has something to do with his little league baseball team and the coach of the team. We know this from Neil’s parallel narrative in which he describes his encounters with his coach. Neil couldn’t be more different from Brian. He is very aware of himself and his sexuality and he relishes the attention that he gets from his coach as he gets little love and attention at home. This is not easy to read even though Neil claims that it has not harmed him and, in fact, he loved his coach and believed that the man loved him.

The narrative moves to later in the lives of both boys – along with narratives from their friends and family. Neil is now a hustler, still very much occupied by sex. Brian is obsessed with UFOs and aliens and eventually meets someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens. He measures her experience against his own and starts to believe this is what happened to him. It is heartbreaking to see the paths both their lives have taken. Although Neil still claims to be happy and to be doing what he wants, it is clear that he has been damaged by his early experiences. Brian seems even more tragic, unable to even acknowledge what has happened to him. The alien story occupies him because he knows something terrible happened and this story means that he doesn’t have to examine the truth.

Heim deftly handles all the different perspectives and the story moves at quite a pace. It is compelling – I found myself both wanting and not wanting Brian to discover the truth. Obviously, he couldn’t carry on believing he was abducted by aliens but inevitably, when he did work it out, he would be destroyed by the knowledge and that was going to be hard to cope with.

Brian finds a photo of the little league team and realises there is some special memory attached to the image of Neil. At first, he believes that they must have been abducted together. But as his search brings him closer to Neil, he realises that the image of his coach also has a horrible effect on him. He is close to his own realisation when Neil takes him back to the house where it happened and we get a full description of what happened to both boys.

The ending was particularly difficult to read especially as Heim offers no resolution. The novel ends with Neil and Brian sat together, holding hands, as the family that now own the house come home. There is no knowing what effect the revelations will have on both their lives. It is a moment that could go in a number of different ways. It could be good – both of them perhaps can move forward – or it could be bad – maybe they will be drowned by it. It is for the reader to decide and I chose to look on the brightside.

This was a difficult read. As you might expect given the subject matter. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it because I’m not sure enjoyment is the right word. It was compelling and heartbreaking. I couldn’t put it down.