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'The Skin and Its Girl' ponders truths, half-truths, and lies passed down in families

Ballantine Books

There is a particular magic to stories about storytelling, especially when they use the metafictional element to probe into the very nature of reality and how we live inside of it.

Sarah Cypher's debut novel The Skin and Its Girl is one of these, specifically dealing in the truths, half-truths, lies, and folktales passed down through family. It begins with a fitting request: "Imagine this."

Elspeth Rummani, sometimes called Betty, is the book's narrator, and her narrative takes the form of a series of stories, memories, and speculations that she shares at the grave of her great-aunt Nuha. Even though she knows Nuha is dead, communing with the woman and her tall tales and metaphoric fictions is a way for Betty to come to a decision about whether or not she will choose to exile herself from the United States, the only home she's ever really known, and join her lover in another country.

In order to properly make sense of her own life and the choice before her, Betty must start at the very beginning — at least, at her very beginning, the day of her birth, her death, and her miracle. Born with the umbilical cord around her neck, she is pronounced dead, only to spontaneously return to life with one minor eccentricity, which is that her skin is "an even, lustrous blue like a creature from a fairy tale." There is no explanation for her color, no apparent abnormality in her vital signs; she's just recently dead, newly alive, and blue.

The strange omens don't stop there. On the same day as Betty's birth, which we're told is relatively soon after 9/11, the Rummani family's ancestral soap factory is bombed by the Israeli army in the Palestinian city of Nablus (in a likely echo of the two soap factories destroyed there in 2002). Even though Betty's grandmother, Saeeda, had already sold the factory long ago — to the horror of the rest of the Rummanis — the building was nevertheless a part of the family history, a place that once upon a time made soap so blue that it dyed the skin of its users the same shade. Coincidence? Maybe, and maybe not. It depends, really, on who is telling the story.

Despite Betty's blueness — and the density of her body, which weighs more than it appears to — the novel lingers far longer within the realms of realism, even if it's slanted and broken up by a plethora of tales. There is a linear plot following Betty's birth, her infancy, toddlerdom, and childhood. While Betty can't literally remember much of what she shares of her earliest years, she is nevertheless able to extrapolate from what she does know about her family members and their history in order to build a compelling and deeply empathetic narrative.

For example, in explaining how and why she lived with the elderly Nuha for the first year of her life, Betty must go into the origins of her mother Tasha's mental illness, which emerged when Tasha was an adolescent hearing her dead father's voice emerging from water fountains and construction sites. "The long-ago diagnosis was depression with psychotic tendencies, bound up with an adjustment disorder," Betty explains. "This is the power of a story to shape the sense of things. It had rewritten a twelve-year-old's grief after she'd been made fatherless, overwritten her outrage at his being replaced by a know-nothing American; later, it footnoted the fourteen-year-old's homesickness, bullying, and adolescent hormones once she was swept away to school in California." Even as she acknowledges that diagnoses are only a way of understanding collections of symptoms and behaviors, Betty doesn't minimize her mother's suffering and actively lionizes the ways in which Tasha manages her mental illness as the years go by in order to become a more involved and eventually full-time mother to Betty.

Betty brings that empathy to Saeeda's history too, but it's clear that the person she is really trying to fully understand is Nuha, her great-aunt. Nuha, a woman in exile from her true homeland despite her American passport, was difficult, headstrong, and often frustratingly mysterious to Betty. But she was also the storyteller in Betty's life, full of tales about silver gazelles and the girls who chase them, the cruelty of the biblical great flood, and one version after another of how the Tower of Babel turned humans into strangers with too many languages and dividing lines between us.

Yet Betty also knows that Nuha's stories contain as many lies as truths, that they have the power to both unite and divide. They can divide a people from a land and unite a people for a cause; divide a woman from her sanity and unite her with a calming influence; divide the living from the dead and unite them in recalled memories. "It's for the philosophers," Betty thinks, "whether two people can live in the exact same place if that place is imaginary — or maybe a poet could tell me whether any set of words is sturdy enough, on its own, to duplicate an experience from one mind to the next. I have doubts."

Fiction, of course, is an attempt to move a set of sturdy words from the mind of a writer to that of a reader. So even though Betty has doubts, her author, Sarah Cypher, has nevertheless made a grand, imaginative, poetic, loving, and — at least for this reader — successful attempt.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

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