Strange Flesh - by Sam West - book review.

Let’s start things off with a piece from the official blurb:

Beatrice Langley is a twenty-nine-year-old, nationally-acclaimed artist with the art world at her feet. A product of the Royal Academy, with an aristocratic background and model-looks, she has it all. Her life is also without intrinsic meaning, and she seeks to fill that void with money, beautiful things, and casual sex. She has a drug problem and is on a downward spiral of depression, partying and nihilism.

There is more, but I’m going to cut it short as I found the rest gave a bit too much away that I would prefer to have remained in mystery. So instead of the official piece, I’ll give my own run-down to the remainder of the synopsis.

One evening, Beatrice meets an enigmatic, and anonymous figure, to whom she finds herself mysteriously compelled. Something about the stranger calls to her, making her feel giddy, like a schoolgirl experiencing her first crush, something she thought she had long surpassed. Or, possibly, suppressed. For on the inside, she is hollow. Despite her hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol, Beatrice finds that nothing seems to give her any sensation, be it pleasure or pain. Except for one thing - the memory of the stranger. His proximity, enough to send a tingle chasing through her system as if he had infected her. And who’s to say he hasn’t? For he appears in her dreams too, where even the ghost of his breath brings her more feeling than any other vice she has been chasing.

I was a little hesitant before going into this book, knowing that it is an extreme title. Not because I’m squeamish or easily offended, but because as I was new to Sam’s work, I didn’t know what to expect from her. There are many extreme titles and authors, who just throw in one gross-out set-piece after another, with no thought of plot, or even, sometimes, decent grammar or punctuation. Luckily, that wasn’t the case here. Sam’s writing was intelligent and thought out, the story as engrossing as it was disturbing. Moments of sex and violence, or even sexualised violence, aren’t just thrown in for the sake of it. They are part of the story, everything finding its place naturally within the narrative, even if there are moments that some readers are going to be possibly disturbed by. The mention of something ‘snapping like an overstretched elastic band.’ isn’t something you want to picture happening to flesh at the best of times, less so when it occurs during a sex scene. Sam has a way with words that sell each moment perfectly. She uses them expertly to describe various moments of pleasure and/or pain, without anything feeling silly or childish and still having the time to layer some dark humour into the narrative as well. There’s a mention of the Norfolk Broads that is made during a sex scene, that made me chuckle. Although, it could also have been because it’s a location that isn’t too far from me, which made it resonate just that little bit more.

It’s not just the nasty moments that stand out. As well as Sam’s skill with words when dealing with the, let’s say, less attractive moments, she squeezes some genuine creepiness into the story as well. There’s a moment where dream and reality are becoming blurred for Beatrice, and she is pursued by one of her artistic creations. The mood and tone of that scene worked well in conveying an unsettling atmosphere without the use of gratuitousness.

The only time I struggled with the story was when fashion labels or similar were mentioned, and me being a fella who is ignorant of such things, probably missed a few nuances here and there, as mention of a shoe brand, for example, could have been a genuine label, or a fictional one, and I didn’t want to pause reading to look them up.

Strange Flesh is a great story, and although it won’t appeal to everyone due to its extreme nature, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was so nice to read something that trod the dark path, without sacrificing story for cheap shocks and I found myself invested in whether Beatrice would give in to the emptiness inside her, and forfeit her soul in exchange for pleasure, or if she would discover her humanity and save herself.

I know that I pretty much always say when having read the work of an author I’ve encountered for the first time, that I look forward to reading more. Don’t get me wrong, I do mean it when I say it, but it often takes me a while to get around to it just because of how much I read, and of how many other author’s works I want to experience. This time though, I know it is going to happen. Even now, I’m perusing Sam’s other titles, of which I think she has over 50, trying to decide which one(s) to read next. In fact, I’m most likely going to make a switch from kindle to paperback too for some of her books, as I want to have them proudly displayed on my bookshelf, albeit well out of reach of my children.

If you’re looking for something that delivers extreme moments as well as a thoughtful and intelligent story, Strange Flesh gets my recommendation.

You can find Strange Flesh for kindle at amazon UK here.

And at amazon US here.