My Second Skin
Love as a second skin and ultimately, about loss
Erwin Mortier is a promising writer who astonished the literary world eighteen months ago with his debut Marcel, in which a small boy reveals a family secret. In his second novel Mijn tweede huid (My Second Skin), Mortier has remained true to this perspective and his mature, scintillating style.
Once again, we look at the world through the eyes of an observant, impressionable boy, Anton Callewijn. The Flemish countryside, the old house belonging to Anton’s parents, his room and his bed – all are made tangible in beautiful, affectionate language. However, the subtlety with which Mortier describes the moods, experiences and feelings of his main character is primarily what makes this novel such a success.
The novel opens before the boy can talk: ‘Hardly anything had a name, everything was body.’ From that moment, we follow Anton’s first, tentative steps on the path to adulthood. Slowly but surely, the boy begins to grasp an understanding of time and death. When he goes to school, love grabs him for the first time. Unlike his older cousin, Roland, and almost all the boys in his class, Anton directs his attentions not at the cooing and ogling girls, but at his classmate, Willem de Vries. His love is reciprocated. Willem, the apparently self-assured son of an architect, helps Anton to conquer his uneasy relationship with life: ‘I am nothing and nobody, I thought. From nowhere and from everywhere.’
This awakening love gives Anton his own, undiscovered identity, envelopes him, as it were, in a second skin. What is so lovely about the description of the relationship between Anton and Willem – as well as how the priest of Anton’s school and his parents react – is that their second skin remains invisible. So many things in this book, although remaining hidden, are nevertheless made as clear as day. As a writer, Mortier has great powers of suggestion. The story of Anton and Willem ends tragically. Love and death have made a grizzly pact in the novel. Mijn tweede huid is ultimately about loss. Anton loses not only his love, but also his youth, the protection of his parents and the old house in the village, and is left desolate.