Nico Laeser’s genre-defying novel Skin Cage deals with one of the cruelest of medical conditions, locked-in syndrome, in which the sufferer is almost completely paralysed but remains conscious. When he was 15 years old, Daniel Stockholm’s brain was infected by a parasite that reduced him to a frozen shell of his former self, and we meet him nine years on, still reliant on machines to keep him alive, and still unable to communicate to his long-time carers, Cassie and Anna. His relationship with these two women is the driving force behind this unsettling, often deeply touching book – but there is far more to Daniel’s story than just that.
Within the opening pages, Laeser takes you by the scruff of the neck, drags you into Daniel Stockholm’s world and forces you to face the heartbreaking reality of his life. The fact that Daniel is mentally aware of his surroundings but unable to move is beyond tragic, but when you add an inability to tell loved ones that he is still ‘there’, and the fact that one of his carers is secretly bullying him, it’s as close to a living hell as one can imagine.
Laeser’s first-person, mostly present-tense narrative adds to the sense of claustrophobia and urgency of Daniel’s plight as he struggles to find a way to contact Anna and Cassie. The sense of despair crescendos when the despicable lowlife Marcus adds to Daniel’s woes and, by this point, which is before the story even gets really interesting, you’re already well and truly locked into Daniel’s world, trapped with him, rooting for him. In fact, you’ll probably want to stay up late, pull a sickie or cancel plans with friends just to finish the book in one sitting.
With a paranormal element but never delving into horror territory, and with a focus on love but never really being a love story, Skin Cage is a well-written and original novel that is as unique as it is unforgettable.