Despite hearing great things about Sara Tilley’s debut novel Skin Room, it took me awhile to pick it up. Some of my reluctance was due to writerly jealousy: can the newest Brilliant Young Writer really be that good? In this case, the answer is yes, and as soon as I began reading Skin Room any suspicion that Tilley’s talent is over-hyped disappeared. The clarity and confidence of her narrative voice is breathtaking — not “for a first-time novelist,” but simply breathtaking. Skin Room is the story of Teresa Norman, a young photographer in downtown St. John’s. Chapters describing Teresa’s present life alternate with chapters describing her life at age twelve, when, in the wake of her mother’s mental breakdown and the collapse of her parents’ marriage, Teresa’s father moves his two children to a remote Northern Canadian Inuit community for a year.
Teresa, already a shy and bookish pre-teen whose favourite novel is Wuthering Heights and who tells her new classmates that her boyfriend back in St. John’s is named Romeo Montague, is an outcast among the Inuit schoolgirls. As she gradually finds a place on the fringes of their world, she also forms an ill-fated alliance with an older Inuit boy. The repercussions of that relationship still haunt Teresa ten years later as she struggles to start an independent life and to find genuine, adult love and friendship. The voices of both the older and younger Teresa are completely convincing, the details of both settings vividly rendered, and the plot a compelling page-turner. I found it hard to put this book down, and I am in awe of Tilley’s talent. And maybe still a little jealous — not of the richly-deserved praise she’s gotten for this novel, but of her deft and sure way with language and story. (Trudy J. Morgan-Cole)
by Sara Tilley Pedlar Press, $20, 60 pgs., PO Box 26, Station P, Toronto, ON, M5S 2S6