(Mr. F is a closeted gay man in 1960s' London and works as a cutter on Number 4, Skin Lane. Beauty is his male apprentice.)
I just finished Skin Lane, and indeed, it doesn't matter if Mr F existed or not. For me, and for anyone who understands what fiction stands for, he exists. He exists in that space that transcends dream and reality, that space that really matters, and which is our only abiding companion in a life where memory and faith play tricks. And for a book that pays such fabulous tributes to the subconscious mind, it is only natural to tip the hat to such an existence. Even if he did not really exist, his pain, his searing grief exist for what they do to a reader many decades apart.
Bartlett really should have finished the novel with the final scene between him and Beauty at Number Four. At least that — this thing called "ever after" — would have been an open question, ready to be filled with the reader's hopes for Mr F. By taking the story forward, and in spite of taking away the dread from his life, Bartlett made Mr. F return to a very real — too imaginable —space, a space that took away some of the charm of my hopes for him. Why won't Bartlett let me think Mr. F found eternal happiness? Could he not have let him be a hero? Why did he make us witness his death—doubtless, a peaceful demise—but just that? How am I to approach the objects Mr. F left behind (a photograph, a child's ticket to a circus, a battered copy of an old book of fairy tales...)? The ashes of a blessed existence? I don't think so. I am not satisfied. Did Mr. F return, in another birth perhaps? He must go on.
I know there are countless other people walking the world right now, who go through what Mr. F went through, and yet, are condemned to return to their erstwhile lives. But you don't do that on paper; you don't do that in a book that promises to survive it all.
(Bartlett's two other novels, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, arrived in the mail the other day. But I am a little wary of approaching them just now. You see, Mr. F lingers. His voice, his presence, his very being are gifts to be handled with care. I cannot let another nuanced tale fight with his memory. Therefore, a little time will help.)