Srikumar Sen’s memorably titled novel “The Skinning Tree” opens with a searing sentence: “Murder was the plaything of us kids.” This is a period piece about children in isolation during wartime, but nothing about it feels standoffish; there’s no safety to be had in the distance given by time. In telling the story of a 9-year-old sent away by his family to avoid the dangers of war who encounters something even worse, it tells a story that’s less a coming-of-age narrative and more a story of how certain experiences can leave people haunted, dissolving cherished beliefs and leaving nothing in their place.
The novel’s protagonist, Sabby Sarkar, falls into the category of a child forced to grow up much too quickly — the harshly run school to which he is sent by his family is one that, understandably, bewilders him. In its stark conditions, it exists in sharp contrasts to the more opulent, richly detailed portrait of late 1930s Calcutta seen in the novel’s first third. That contrast works in another way, as well: For all that Calcutta is bustling with life, the threat of Japanese military action is on the horizon, and it’s one that weighs heavily on the first section.
Once Sabby has arrived at school, he hears reports of animals being killed by the students there, suggesting that he’s merely exchanged one type of conflict for another. (“Lord of the Flies” and “Empire of the Sun” both serve as good points of reference for the action that slowly unfolds.)
The first chapter, told in the first person, establishes the school as a place of danger and barely concealed violence.
While the third-person narrative that dominates the book is more restrained, it never shakes that sense of a storm on the horizon. And Sabby is endangered physically and emotionally — by his fellow students’ tendencies toward bullying and by his teachers’ fondness for corporal punishment and their emphasis on the white Englishmen who “built the British Empire where we all live.”
When he bonds with some fellow students and learns to compete in the brutal rivalries that abound in the school, the tone is no less sinister. The novel’s title comes from a tree on which the bodies of dead animals are draped; another sequence involving the killing of flies is chillingly visceral. And there’s a suggestion that this is one of several experiences that have left Sabby as “an eternal child,” emotionally marred by the contortions of his childhood and by the legacies of colonialism.
With suspense and an unflinching eye, Sen’s novel delivers a powerful take on a childhood spent grappling with terrifying events.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.