“The Skin Beneath”
By Nairne Holtz
Insomniac Press, Toronto, 2007
In The Skin Beneath, the first novel from Nairne Holtz, a mysterious postcard arrives and poses a puzzle to Sam O’Conner over the death of her sister. This prompts Sam to investigate just how Chloe, her older sibling, really did die five years ago - taking her from Toronto to Montreal, Detroit and to Chloe’s final stop, New York City. Along the way Sam traces her sister’s steps, meets her friends, and learns of a conspiracy that may have caused Chloe’s death.
This novel is labeled a mystery: Sam delves further into her sister’s last days, uncovering a conspiracy involving Raelians, Hell’s Angels, strippers, and ex-soldiers with Gulf War Syndrome. Yet it’s more accurate to say it’s a mystery mixed with a travelogue and a personal growth story. Not only is Sam investigating Chloe’s death, in a way she investigates her life and how she fits in with the rest of the world.
Ideally, anyone who is under 30 and a lesbian would identify most with the protagonist in this novel, but as a testament to the author’s skill in unfolding this story, I found that for all the times you’ve seen the mysteries behind your own friends and family revealed, you can relate to the ordeal Sam endures.
As the title suggests, author Holtz makes use of skin-related imagery; from lesbian strippers to tattoos to ecdysis (the molting of skin or exoskeleton so an animal can continue to grow). Sam, in pulling back the layers of mystery surrounding her sister’s last days, has to learn to shed her skin – old ideas, habits, beliefs – to move forward and grow up.
Although the point of view is 3rd person limited, we see the world through Sam’s eyes and her thoughts. Author Holtz creates a good balance of advancing Sam’s story while using flashbacks to tell of the sister’s relationship. Sam always played the boy to Chloe’s sister. As an adult, this is a skin she takes on in her role as a butch, tattooed brush-cut ex-university student - whether in bed with her lovers or in her investigation when it suits her to pass as a man.
While the reader mostly gets under the skin of Sam (and to a lesser degree Chloe) to accompany them on their journey of discovery, as the novel unfolds, all the characters have something hiding in “the skin beneath”; whether it’s who they really are, or scars left from old wounds.
Until the end, Sam gives the impression of being a tourist in her own life – it is only by investigating Chloe’s death is she able to grow up, and into herself as an adult.
The Skin Beneath is an enjoyable page-turner. The only quibble I have (and it’s a minor one) is the resolution – I felt it was a little unclear and open-ended, and I had to re-read it a second time to understand what the author was telling me. However, overall it was an excellent debut novel from a young Canadian novelist.