Skinny by Ibi Kaslik
HarperCollinsCanada, 244 pp, $19.95, softcover.
Sometimes a story is so painful that you feel like you've accidentally stumbled upon something you shouldn't have, that you've found the author's private notes by mistake or opened the door on a solitary conversation.
Skinny made me feel that way at times. Ibi Kaslik's first novel takes place, for the most part, behind closed doors: behind the door of a university dorm room where Giselle, the brilliant medical-school student, struggles to maintain her studies while wrestling with anorexia, then behind the door of her room at the hospital as she fights to learn to eat again and confront the past that is eating her, and finally behind the many doors of her home, where Giselle, her younger sister, and their mother attempt to reconstruct a family pulled into fragments by the death of its father and husband.
Each chapter begins with a quote taken from a medical textbook, used to flavour the story that follows. The quote on the first page is telling: "History, like trauma, is never simply one's own. History is precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas."
This is most tragically apparent in the relationship between the two sisters, which is fuelled by their respective obsessions: secrecy and jealousy. Giselle says, "Holly will always be immune from the damage that infects me. She comes to visit me today at the clinic, smelling of lilacs and peanut butter." Holly, who is 14 and frustrated with her sister's illness, tells us: "Tonight the house is a tense hot place with Giselle fuming in her room and slamming doors, so I go for a run...my legs disappear and I forget about Giselle's scratchy hair and ugly frowns, forget that we're bound together in bone and blood in this big messy life."
Kaslik is a talented storyteller. This book captured something visceral and alive in every family: the power of its secrets and how we can choose to be either haunted or healed by them.