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Skin Thief: Suzan Palumbo - a book review

Pulling the pelt over my head and torso is familiar but restrictive, like a bra that supports but cuts too tightly against your ribs. (The Pull of the Herd)

This collection of twelve short stories is an absolute treat. Except for “Kill Jar”, the stories have been previously published in literary magazines, and it’s easy to see why. Palumbo’s style is unique and her prose is carefully layered, ensuring that these stories can be revisited many times to reveal new meanings.

“No one’s skin fits perfectly,” is a line from “The Pull of the Herd”, the first story in the collection, and provides a common theme that weaves the individual tales into a coherent collection. Many of the stories feature shape shifters of one form or another—those who society might consider monsters. While these magical creatures could be seen as archetypes reflecting the struggles of anyone who feels uncomfortable in their own skin or position in society, Palumbo breathes life into protagonists and antagonists alike, creating vibrant individuals with their own hopes and dreams, and who we care deeply about.

My doeskin clings to me. Its embrace is tender now. Soft. It knows I’m alone, the last of my kind this side of the river. (The Pull of the Herd)

There are stories about mother and daughter relationships, being unable to fit in, conflicting identities, sibling rivalry, queerness, and the violence men inflict on the women they claim to love. One might say it’s an angry collection, but that would downplay the intricate beauty of each story, many of which end with at least a glimmer of hope. It is political, but only because it centres people who are often disenfranchised by politics.

“You see this skin?” She tugged at her creviced face. “It slides away easier than a fresh bride’s satin nightgown….” (Tara’s Mother’s Skin)

Palumbo writes about identity, racism, colonialism, homophobia, immigration, oppression and patriarchy, but the reader is unlikely to feel they are being preached to. The personal and the political collide in Skin Thief as they often do in life.

Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. (Tassellated)

While the collection is described as dark fantasy/horror, I would argue that it plays with genre and reader expectations. Not all the stories read as horror; here you will also find magical realism, Gothic, and weird tales.

the walls were painted a bruised blue—a suffocating colour that strangled the already feeble light; a color [sic] that recalled the marks on Ma’s arms the mornings  after Dad had come home from drinking rum and I had fallen asleep hiding in my closet. (Tara's Mother's Skin)

It’s difficult to choose one favourite, but the stories that affected me most were: The Pull of the Herd, Her Voice, Unmasked, and Tessellated. If you are looking for an intelligent and thought-provoking collection of dark tales, this book will not disappoint.

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