Book Review: The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher

In a word: Wow. This book has easily shot to the top of my list of my favorite books of the year. If you like truly weird fiction about immigrant experiences, family lore and a literary style, this may be your book, too.

I was blown away by the prose in Sarah Cypher’s debut, “The Skin and Its Girl.” Such beautiful, lyrical sentences. The story is definitely slow-paced in that more literary style that focuses on language and emotional states. This is the story of Elspeth “Betty” Rummani, a Palestinian American in the Pacific Northwest born with an unusual medical condition of possessing blue skin. But instead of taking the typical fetishization-of-identity narrative that I would have expected, it is instead a story of the power of stories themselves in a complex family of gifted storytellers fleeing troubled pasts and identities they could not reconcile with societal expectations.

I felt the story focused a little too much on Betty’s first three years and not enough on her adulthood for starting from her birth, but it was a layered story told by Betty in first person to the second person persona who was Betty’s great-aunt, revealing the family’s past as once-wealthy merchants who owned a soap factory in Palestine before exile and history tore them apart. I felt like I was sitting in a room with Betty’s aunties hearing them tell stories and soon forgot about the slow pace and became enchanted with the prose and how Betty’s unusual skin color became the least remarkable thing about her.

It was also about her struggles with her suicidal mother, her sexuality, her desire for invisibility in a world in which she was conspicuous in ways that the world could not explain. The passages about her mother’s mental illness were difficult to read but sensitively handled. Betty reviews her life with her great-aunt in front of her great-aunt’s headstone, trying to decide whether to leave her mother behind to join her beloved in a foreign country. We know what she will ultimately decide, but the story isn’t about the decision at all; it’s about relationships, and a family full of stories, faith, secrets and a rich folkloric past, strangers in strange lands taking comfort in saving each other again and again.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy. I’m voluntarily leaving a review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s