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Book Reviews

The Secret Under My Skin

by Janet McNaughton

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has a scene where the protagonist tries to use her credit card at a corner store, only to be told that her number is not valid. She discovers she has no access to her bank accounts. Soon she realizes that all women have been disenfranchised in a single fell swoop. In this scene Atwood forever changed my attitude toward my credit cards. I still use them – almost automatically but not quite – and a slight chill lingers.

I experienced a similar chill of recognition the other day when I read of a proposal to redraw Canada’s poverty line, to solve the poverty problem in one fell swoop by simply redefining “poor.” I began to wonder what the proponents of this idea visualized as a decent, bearable life. Then I realized that I knew what they were imagining. It’s the same world vividly described in Janet McNaughton’s dystopian novel of the future, The Secret Under My Skin. In McNaughton’s world, set in the year 2368, street children are rescued and taken to model social welfare projects. Here they have clothing, food, work, a basic education, and a bed to sleep in. They do not have beauty, joy, meaning, respect, or hope. The reason I know what this feels like is that I have been under the skin of McNaughton’s character Blake, a 14-year-old girl trapped in this situation.

Futuristic novels need three things to work. The first is social and political plausibility. We need to be able to look at the present and see logical links to this future invention. McNaughton does an admirable job in this area. She takes two main aspects of our present situation – environmental degradation and an erosion of trust in the scientific method – and fast-forwards to one very plausible logical end. Between now and the 24th century, the planet has experienced an environmental collapse followed by the “technocaust” in which all scientists and technicians are sent to concentration camps. As the novel opens we are in a world of dictatorial rule, of people kept oppressed by superstition, fear, and lies. The cities are divided into privileged gated communities and the “tribes” of the streets. So far, so familiar. In villages and the country, however, there’s another group – the weavers’ guilds. These guilds turn out to be an underground force for the re-establishment of both learning and democracy. McNaughton is a folklorist and she puts this perspective to good use in creating a richly textured, fully realized world, with its own rituals and traditions.

The other quality necessary for future speculation is inventiveness. We need the familiar but we also need to encounter things we’ve never even thought of. McNaughton has her share of cunning devices such as the holograph television, the “subcutaneous micro dot,” and the medical technology for limb regeneration. Even more interesting are her inventions of social roles and customs such as the bio-indicator, who has the largely ritualized job of testing the environment. In this society each individual is assigned a “U-R” or use rating. In the villages the men knit as a gesture of solidarity with the women weavers. Halloween has turned into Memory Day and has been co-opted by the rulers to instill fear in the people.

The third essential in such speculative fiction is emotional reality. The world that McNaughton has created is complicated. Its history, its social structures, its secrets – all these are a workout for the brain. What pulls us through this world is the story of one girl trying to find out who she is and what she needs to do. Blake moves from street kid to welfare project resident to weaver to her final destiny in a tense, tightly controlled plot. Along the way she finds a name, a history, and a passion. The ideas in this book are intriguing but what really makes it work is the quality of the writing. McNaughton has a clear, strong, subtle style. For example, we are not given many details of Blake’s life on the streets. But she flinches at contact with men and at one point mentions “the stranger whims of strangers.” Readers ready for this information will get it, and it is all the more powerful for being so understated.

One of the themes of the book is a rediscovery of nature, and McNaughton writes beautifully of natural history and geology. Blake has a dream of the formation of the earth, and of one particular rock outcrop: “Over eons it is worn away and exposed to the harsh, dry light, smoothed by glaciers and weathered into powdery orange rock. Forests spring up around it, but the rock remembers its molten self far below the earth and never accepts the gentling green of life.” Stop and enjoy.

The Secret Under My Skin is a dense book. It doesn’t preach and it doesn’t provide any easy answers. On a first read I got bogged down in the subplot involving a boy’s discovery of his father. There were too many secrets for me to sustain. I think my way would have been slightly smoothed without that strand. But if the result is a somewhat rough weave, it is nonetheless a very strong one.

In our world we seem increasingly judged by our “use rating,” our ability to produce and consume. Let’s hope that many children read this book, grapple with McNaughton’s ideas, and grow up to become politicians.