When asked about it, Sara Tilley is quick to say that her time in Sanikiluag, Nunavut, (although it was NWT when she lived there) was much and more pleasant than the life of Teresa, the central character and narrator of Skin Room. Sara spent four years there when she was a pre-teen, and had earlier lived in Nain, Labrador, another predominantly Inuit community.
Teresa, 11 going on 12, doesn’t even last a year. Half of Skin Room is about why she doesn’t.
The other half is set eleven years later and is the story of the older Sara, now an artist and member of the artsy set in St. John’s, who is still trying to cope with what happened in Sanikiluag, as well as other events in her difficult and disordered life.
Teresa’s problems likely began when her mother, once a respected artist, started to go over the edge. She developed a bi-polar disorder with a strong touch of religious mania. Imagine angels and the Sacred Heart of Jesus painted everywhere you look in the house.
Did the mania lead to the divorce or was it caused by it? We don’t know. It’s one of many deliberately double-sided issues that the story leaves us to grapple with.
Father packs up the kids and takes a teaching job about as far away from mother as he can get. It’s a largely native community: lots of black hair and dark skin. Teresa is almost freakishly white: pale skin under which the veins show, platinum hair. She’s next to being an albino, and if that was ever a problem back in St. John’s it’s many times more so in Sanikiluag.
She is subjected to nasty hazing rituals by the girls in the school and becomes an obsession for Willassie, a much older male classmate. It becomes a mutual obsession, and while it takes some time to get there, it can’t lead anywhere good.
In the alternating chapters we follow the adult Teresa through her chaotic social life and through a number of failed relationships. She still visits her mother in a nursing home. She spends time with her father on special occasions. Her little brother, who was once a joy in her life, will have nothing to do with his parents or her and lives with other relatives.
Teresa continues to feel cut off from normal human relationships and tries to cope with that by ingesting large amounts of various substances and throwing herself into disastrous love affairs with both men and women. We follow most closely the relationship with a woman named Delith, a frantic, grasping, out-of-control thing that burns itself out in about a week and leaves Teresa feeling more alone and alien than ever.
For all her groping after love, she had never actually considered that she might be lesbian or bi-sexual, and Delith’s abandonment leaves her more than ever uncertain about who she is. Is she destined to be alone and sad like her father, or alone and mad like her mother?
Much of Skin Room is written as if it is being addressed to Willassie. She thinks of him often and with a mixture (two-sided again) of longing and guilt. Even her adult self looks back to that first, weird, forbidden love, and wonders if he ever thinks of her.
The structure of the book is such that we come to the full tale of what happened on her twelfth birthday and the events that followed it, just a few pages before she is finally willing to share that tale with Mark, a musician friend, who, though he has been with a number of other women throughout this story, has been a constant presence in her adult life for many years. We are left with the sense that his generally unjudgmental reaction to her story may have been what she’s needed for a long time. That Teresa finds herself “rife with possibility” near the end of this story is a hopeful sign.