Book Review: The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding by Holly Ringland

I have mixed feelings about this book which is about love, sisters, daughters, sorrow and grief mixed with fairytales and women’s voices.

Sound like a lot? It is and it’s quite a long read.

The story opens with Esther. A swan crashes into her ute from above and she thinks it’s her missing sisters spirit. Her sister Aura last seen walking along the beach disappeared twelve months earlier and Esther has been called home for a memorial service. She has a fractious relationship with her tattooist mother Freya but together with her therapist father, Esther is asked to go to Denmark. Why? Because her sister had lived there for three years before returning home  broken and deeply sad and they believe Esther should go and find out what happened.

The plot slowly unfolds as we discover stories surrounding tattooing and how women’s stories can be told on their skin. We discover that Aura has a childhood diary where her teenage ramblings stop when she’s about to turn sixteen. It picks up again when she’s in Denmark when her studies into folklore and fairy tales brings her to write about the seven skins, lines and passages she also has tattooed on her body the meaning of which remains a mystery.

I enjoyed the imagery and the arc of Esther’s character even though she wasn’t a particularly likeable character but that wasn’t the point. Her grief and the trauma of losing her older sister, the relationships around her and her self-discovery was touching and quite moving. The other characters weren’t terribly engaging either serving little purpose than to tiptoe around Esther.

Mostly the novel centres on Esther’s point of view with occasional drifts to others and this I found to be unfulfilling because it failed to move the story along. I also found long chunks of information about each skin, her flashbacks about her sister and the fairy tale reference to be quite repetitive. Even her one night stand with Tom was repeated a few times. There was a lot of detail and description which was nice when it deserved a place but many times, I found it merely slowed the story down. Perhaps that was the intention for this slow boil of a novel but it didn’t suit me.

A minor plot issue, but given that Freya came from Denmark herself, why she as a mother would not hop on a plane to find out what happened to her own daughter did lose me a bit. I didn’t really buy her reasons but took the leap of faith and accepted it.

Having said that, there was lots about this novel I did enjoy. The idea that grief can paralyse a person, the bonds of sisters, especially an older sister’s impact on her younger sister ( I must remember that, as I am an older sister). It is beautifully written and quite lyrical but overall it didn’t quite work for me.

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