This may come as a shock to those of my readers who aren’t also writers, but the sad truth is that writers do not always bathe one another in a warm glow of approval. There is, I am chagrined to report, rivalry and resentment among writers. To the degree that, if you were, say, a middle-aged writer in a small literary community who has managed to achieve only the most modest success, and you were constantly hearing about the brilliant talent of yet another Bright Young Thing fifteen or twenty years your junior, a Bright Young Thing whose talents you have been hearing about since she was in high school even though you’ve never personally met her, a Bright Young Thing whose first novel has already won acclaim far beyond anything you’ve ever achieved … well, let’s just say you might not be so quick to pick up that first novel of hers. (Especially if you’re just finished reading two books by Joel Hynes, so you’re in that kind of mood anyway). You might just check this talented young writer’s new book out of the library and leave it on your headboard for awhile, thinking small and jealous thoughts about how easy it is to get your work noticed if you’re young and trendy and cutting-edge, and how it probably isn’t even really all that good.
Then you would actually start to read the book, and all those petty jealousies would fall away like dead leaves. You would turn from a resentful fellow-writer into a delighted reader recognizing that every shred of acclaim Sara Tilley has received for Skin Room is richly deserved, and that she should get a whole lot more of it.
Well, you might do that. If you were like me. Of course, you might be a better person and skip right over the jealousy-and-resentment portion of our program and straight to “What a fantastic debut novel this is!” You’re probably a better person than I am.
But I am who I am, and though it did take me awhile to get around to reading Skin Room, it certainly didn’t take me long to finish it once I’d started. The clarity and confidence of Tilley’s narrative voice is breathtaking, especially for a first-time novelist.
Skin Room is the story of Teresa Norman, a young photographer living a rather aimless and drifting life in that same downtown St. John’s arts scene that Joel Hynes explores so grittily. Tilley’s take on that world is gentler but no less vivid or bleak. The 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 breakdown of her parents’ marriage, Teresa’s father brings his two children to a remote Northern Canadian Inuit community where he is to teach 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 and a loner 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 tries unsuccessfully to start an independent life and find genuine love and friendship as an adult.
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, OK, maybe still a little jealous — not of the richly-deserved praise she’s gotten for this novel (indeed, she should have gotten more) but of her deft and sure way with language and story.