Nine-year-old Sabby lives in his imagination, at his grandmother's house in Calcutta. He lives in a family where the anglicised sophistication of bridge and dinner parties co-exist with Indian values and nationalism. Sabby's world is filled with the adventures of comic book heroes, tales from far and away, successfully pulling him away from the city that breathes outside his doorstep. But when the Japanese advance on India during World War II, Sabby finds himself being sent to a boarding school in northern India.
In a regime of rules and punishments, the schoolboys are beaten and brutalized by the teachers; they are transformed into mirrors of their abusers. From the mindless killing of birds and animals, the bodies of their skinned trophies are thrown on to a cactus known as the Skinning Tree, the boys' thoughts turn to murder, which to them feels like a natural consequence of the pain inflicted on them. Conspiratorial whisperings and talk of killing and revenge spiral into a tragedy engulfing Sabby.
Revisiting the ghosts of memory that haunted a boyhood, The Skinning Tree marks an evocative and elegant debut.