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Skin Room

by Sara Tilley

Sara Tilley’s debut novel is many of the things its catalogue bumph claims – unflinching, sharply realized, as evocative as poetry. Or at least half of the novel is, anyway.

Tilley relates – with a sense of beauty, wonder, and honesty – the story of a 12-year-old white girl, Teresa, thrust into a remote Nunavut village. When Teresa emerges from the plane, mid-winter, she describes, with a child’s simple accuracy, a north that is “white and flat and goes on forever. The sky is blue, and the blue has bits of white floating in it…. This is not a place where people belong.” Teresa, as white as a snowflake, wishes she could be nut-brown like the other children, and she endures taunts, attacks (both physical and psychological), and grinding loneliness. She also falls into deep, nearly silent love with an older Inuit boy, that “bright, glowing thing … that is Willassie Ippaq.”

Her reasons for being there with her father and brother, and without her mother, are revealed slowly, just as slowly as the love story is revealed, and the journey is fascinating, sad, and compelling. It is difficult to pull away from Tilley’s descriptions of fields of ice and hoped-for glimpses of narwhals, of dreamscapes filled with polar bears, caribou juices dripping down chins, and sweet, warm kisses like nothing Teresa has ever felt before.

But Tilley does pull us away, unfortunately, by alternating the Nunavut chapters with a story set in present-day St. John’s. The voice shifts to a 23-year-old Teresa, who seems disconnected, shallow, a bit immature, and simply uninteresting. Her story feels like an obligation to be endured until the next installment in the child-
Teresa story. The connection between the two voices is not made, the need for the older voice left unclear.

Which is a shame. Teresa of the North has a tender, angry, broken-child story to tell, and when she finally pursues her love, her wisdom and romanticism ache on the page, as she imagines herself as Juliet, knowing “her molasses hair will drip and drip, and she’ll lie on her love’s cold body till she turns cold too.” The older Teresa laments that she only ever felt alive in the North, as a child in love ­– and that may be the only part of her story we need.