The sharply realized scenes in Skin Room, Sara Tilley's remarkable debut novel, alternate between Sanikiluaq, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut), and St. John's, Newfoundland; between 12-year-old Teresa Norman's crash into Inuit culture and her later life as a 23-year-old adult in the harrowing final phase of coping with the tragedy of her year in Sanikiluaq. She is an innocent victim of severe cultural misunderstanding. Nobody to blame, widespread suffering. With panache, Teresa writes her way into the events leading up to and away from the trauma. "If you love words, they'll never desert you," she says. "They will always be there, waiting patiently in their ordered pages. I can re-read the same books over and over and be surprised, every time, by some detail or nuance that didn't appear before. . . . Always, it seems, the story . . . has changed and I've remained constant, when, really, the object is an object, a thing unchanging, and it is I who continue to metamorphose. My heart. My tongue." Only the best books invite re-reading, of course, those by writers who both love words and know how to work them. The writing in Skin Room, both the voices of precocious 12-year-old Teresa and her sophisticated older self, is straightforward and yet as memorably evocative as poetry. Whether Sara Tilley is describing the mores of Inuit schoolchildren or the contemporary downtown St. John's arts scene, she carries a reader close, every step of the way. Skin Room is one of those novels one wants to re-read because it grabs and never lets go. The novel is hilarious at times, despite the heart-rending central event and aftermath. Coming of age has not been more searingly rendered. Skin Room is the work of a formidable new talent.
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