THE MIRROR

Richard Skinner

(Faber, £8.99)

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Don’t do what I did, which was to plunge in without ascertaining that this is two novellas in one book and letting out a howl of anguish when the story ended 150 pages earlier than expected. That is, at least, a good indication of how easily gripped one can be by novella number one, The Mirror.

It’s set in a convent in Venice in 1511, where an artist has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the Abbess. Because the subject is so busy, a 16-year-old novitiate named Oliva is chosen to take her place in most of the sittings. She thus has to endure uncomfortable sessions with a painter who has brought into the abbey dangerously sensual ideas, along with the ultimate symbol of vanity: a mirror.

It’s a story that benefits greatly from the author’s historical research. Skinner seeds the text with details of the culture of a 16th-century convent that bring to life its camaraderie and its bitter rivalries. It’s hard enough being a nun, but the male authorities, dismissing Venetian convents as nothing more than brothels in waiting, are turning the screws even tighter. Oliva’s declaration that, “I want to be ignored and regarded as nothing, so that I may find joy in contempt for myself” sums up the psychological abuse entrenched in the system.

The second novella, The Velvet Gentleman, couldn’t be more different from its slightly overwrought predecessor, and the contrast between them attests to what a fine and versatile writer Skinner is. It’s told in the voice of French composer Erik Satie, who, upon his death, finds himself transported to a celestial railway station.

He is informed that, before he can pass into the afterlife, he must pick one memory to be preserved as it is the only one he will be allowed to keep. Oliva, despite her late-Medieval upbringing, is someone we can easily identify with, but Satie was an odd fish indeed. As he looks back on his 59 years, we see through the eyes of a man who pushed the envelope of conventional behaviour and questioned society’s assumptions of what it meant to be happy. In this fascinating and beguiling tale Skinner constantly seeks out the rationale behind the composer’s idiosyncratic whims, striking a tone of curiosity and naive fearlessness that has all the discreet poise of one of Satie’s own compositions.

ALASTAIR MABBOTT