Under My Skin
Under My Skin is Lisa Unger’s eighth stand-alone novel. It’s a twisty, twirly thrill ride of a book which takes an in depth look at the emotional pain that accompanies violent loss and examines the bad choices we can make on the journey through grief.
A year ago, Jack Lang went for his morning run through a Manhattan park and was brutally murdered. His wife Poppy has not been the same since. Once decisive, independent and strong, she now finds herself spending morning to evening in a drug, grief and alcohol induced daze. Her friend Layla is essentially running her life and Poppy likes it that way. Or she thought she did. Lately, though, she’s not so sure that’s a good situation.
Her husband’s murder has never been solved but that is not the only mystery surrounding that period in her life. Shortly after Jack’s funeral, Poppy disappeared for several days; her phone was dead and a search of the area surrounding her home and work turned up nothing. She appeared suddenly in the lobby of Layla’s apartment complex, ragged and dazed, wearing a tight red dress and high heels; she was so ill and confused, she had to be hospitalized. She has no recollection of what happened during that time, but she does know one thing: no one will tell her the truth about it. Layla lies when questioned, and the detective in charge of Jack’s case prevaricates.
Now she’s begun dreaming about that time. Dreams of herself waking up in a bathroom stall in that red dress. Dreams of voices, laughter and a matchbook with a phone number. When she begins to sense that someone is following her, Poppy comes to a startling realization: the only way forward is backward because the secrets in her past may very well cost her her future.
Ms. Unger is a strong writer and that shows here in her skillful weaving of multiple time frames and multiple issues. Poppy is essentially an entire encyclopedia of disorders; not only is she suffering from PTSD but her endless pill-popping causes hallucinations and time losses where she begins at one place and arrives at another with no idea of how she got there or what happened in between. Her sleep deprivation causes microsleeps with hypnagogia and REM atonia, conditions which cause nightmares so potent they interfere with her reality. She is reclaiming her lost memories but her other issues make it difficult for her to know if what she is seeing in her mind is memory, hallucination or nightmare crafted by her subconscious. If all that weren’t enough, Poppy often reenacts the day Jack died, changing simple facts about it so that she can imagine how a different outcome would have been possible if she had modified her own actions. It makes for an absolutely fascinating read but it requires the reader to pay sharp attention since it would be very easy to mistake what is dream/hallucination for actual plot within the context of the story.
Adding to the sense of unreality are the characters themselves. Because of Poppy’s myriad conditions she is not a reliable narrator nor are we confident she is an accurate judge of character. The secondary characters are, as a result, as unreliable as she is. The author handles that with a deft hand, making all the confusion more intriguing than irritating. It’s a balancing act and I have to applaud that she has, for the most part, pulled it off.
There is romance here, both a present one and the exploration of Poppy’s previous love story with Jack, which is handled absolutely brilliantly. From the flashback to when they met, to the memories of their dating and marriage, I adored these two as a couple. It isn’t saccharine coated – their marriage had issues just like everyone else’s – but the author does an excellent job of convincing readers that they truly love each other. The present-day romance suffers not just as a result of how pale it is compared to the original but also because I felt it was poorly timed (Poppy is a drug addict while it’s happening), and she is too accepting of the ‘hero’s’ explanations for some problems in his past. I don’t want to say too much and give the plot away, but suffice it to say I had problems with the new romance in the tale.
I also felt Poppy stayed too long in her problematic state for me to be able to enjoy or admire her as a heroine. I grew increasingly frustrated at how she refused to follow professional advice or help and did her own thing, often to less than stellar results, which caused the book to drag a bit in the middle. It simply takes too long for Poppy to get it together sufficiently to start making progress on the mystery of what happened to Jack.
That said, Under My Skin is a fascinating mystery/thriller which deserves much acclaim for how it handles the issues of stress, grief and PTSD surrounding the violent death of a loved one. Fans of the thriller market will find a lot to enjoy in this unique, challenging tale.