Meet Molly Sue. Once she’s under your skin there’s no getting rid of her…
Seventeen-year-old Sally Feather is not exactly a rebel. Her super-conservative parents and her treatment at the hands of high school bullies means that Sally’s about as shy and retiring as they come – but all that’s about to change. Accidentally ending up in the seedier side of town one day, Sally finds herself mysteriously lured to an almost-hidden tattoo parlour – and once inside, Sally is quickly seduced by its charming owner, Rosita, and her talk of how having a secret tattoo can be as empowering as it is thrilling. Almost before she knows what she is doing, Sally selects sexy pin-up Molly Sue, and has her tattooed on her back – hoping that Molly Sue will inspire her to be as confident and popular as she is in her dreams.
But things quickly take a nightmareish turn. Almost immediately, Sally begins to hear voices in her head – or rather, one voice in particular: Molly Sue’s. And she has no interest in staying quiet and being a good girl – in fact, she’s mighty delighted to have a body to take charge of again. Sally slowly realises that she is unable to control Molly Sue… and before long she’s going to find out the hard way what it truly means to have somebody ‘under your skin’.
Let’s get one thing clear here: Juno (formerly James) Dawson is out to scare you. In Under My Skin, she succeeds, and then some. I had been meaning to read anything by Juno Dawson for a long time, having only read her guide to mental health, Mind Your Head, a non-fiction title. I heard her speak last year at an amazing horror panel in Dublin, at which most of the audience was scrambling to scribble down all the horror book and movie recommendations.
This book has a lot of what makes you want to read more and more. Sally has an interesting life as it is, having just been cast in the school musical, despite the fact that she sees herself as very mediocre. The school is complete with jocks and Mean Girls, and has such useful terms as “lesson friend,” one which you really only talk to during/around lessons and all the peer pressure and societal norms that go with such a melting pot. This is where Juno Dawson lets loose, occasionally ribbing and sometimes mercilessly shredding social conventions to bits, dealing with homophobia, weight issues and all kinds of stereotyping. All this is a book in itself.
But where our interest lies is with Sally, and her idea that escalates out of control when she decides she wants to make a statement. Her parents are ultra-conservative, and the idea of a tattoo, once she finds herself at a parlour quite by accident, seems appealing to her. When Molly Sue comes a-callin’, she can’t resist the beautiful artwork.
What comes next is hugely enjoyable. The voice of Molly Sue, her accent straight from the Southern belle school of hammy acting, is brilliant, shocking and dangerous. Sally goes from being terrified of her new ever-present companion, to empowered, to downright threatened and fatalistic. This rollercoaster really gets out of control, which is all very well written.
Apart from this, Under My Skin has a lot of strength in the characters that surround Sally, in particular her closest friends Stan and Jennie. Juno Dawson uses a clever device of a common love for a supernatural TV show as a natural conduit for their strong bonds, as a trio and as duos.
I’ll definitely be getting onto more Juno Dawson books after reading this offering, a real contemporary horror tale that certainly lives up to its title. A word on the cover as well: spot-on.