Feature

Food for Fiction

Skinny
Ibi Kaslik

HarperCollins Canada
$19.95
paper
246pp
0-00-200507-7

It was probably inevitable. Write a debut novel called Skinny, in which you do an almost frighteningly good job of getting inside the head of a young woman with an eating disorder, and people may make certain assumptions. Ibi Kaslik, the 30-year-old Montrealer in question, has heard it before, to the point where she anticipates the end of the query. Does she worry about becoming…

”The poster girl for anorexia?” she laughs. “Well, I’ve put the subject out there, so I have to make peace with the chance that that’s what’s going to happen. It doesn’t bother me at all.”

Kaslik can afford to feel secure. Skinny is a novel that can stand proud on its own. Yes, it’s “about” anorexia, but it’s also about a whole emotional world where anorexia can hatch and flourish. Sibling love/rivalry, family dysfunction, the exhilaration and confusion of sexual awakening, suburban anomie, the identity questions at the heart of the immigrant experience – all these and more converge on an early twenty-something former medical student named Giselle. Self-aware enough to say things like “Denying myself food was proof that I was stronger, better than most people” yet seemingly powerless to stop the self-damage, she’s a character whose contradictions can drive the reader crazy, and all the more fascinating for that.

The novel’s chapters alternate between the first-person viewpoints of Giselle and her younger sister Holly, a junior high track star. Kaslik very effectively exploits the fact that it’s the kid sister who provides the stability and support in the relationship. She also wrings dramatic irony from Giselle’s med-student knowledge of the human body; each of her chapters begins with a short excerpt from a medical text, after which Giselle, again and again, demonstrates that knowing exactly how you’re harming yourself is no guarantee that you won’t keep doing it.

A bond the sisters share with their mother is grief over the loss of their father, who died years earlier of a heart attack. There are undercurrents here, too, though. Giselle is jealous of her sister’s greater emotional closeness to their father, and tormented by suspicions about exactly what happened between her parents before they came to Canada from Hungary.

That’s plenty for any novelist to take on, and Ibi Kaslik handles it all with a sure hand that indicates a writer likely to be in it for the long haul.

In a phone conversation from Banff, where she’s working on her second novel, Kaslik starts by describing some of the impetus for Skinny.

“I’d never really seen anorexia portrayed in a world that I could identify with. The emphasis always seemed to be on external things – models, overbearing parents, perfectionism. These things do factor in, but really it’s an intensely misunderstood experience because it’s so intensely personal. I also see it as an essentially adolescent thing, although people do battle with it all their lives. In my personal adolescent experience, half my friends had eating disorders, and it wasn’t a big stigma. It was more like experimenting with drugs or sex or whatever, just part of the fabric of life. You go through it and you get over it, you know? So I was intrigued by the idea of a character who can’t get over it, who’s a sort of arrested adolescent but also a hyper-intellectual. Giselle’s not a victim of society’s standards but of her own neuroses.”

At many points, as in the line quoted above, Giselle demonstrates such a clear grasp of what she’s doing to herself that her parallel denial seems almost superhuman.

“That’s right. As she’s watching herself disintegrate she’s very emotional yet also somehow completely detached. There is this really weird inner conflict. You feel inadequate and inferior, but at the same time you feel superior. That tension is where the distortion comes. And another complex aspect of anorexia that I wanted to explore was the misconceived idea that anorexics are desexualized. Giselle desires sexual love and intimacy too intensely.

There’s little or no specific geographical scene-setting in Skinny. We sense we’re in a sort of generic Toronto-esque suburb, but we could be almost anywhere in the western world. Was the vagueness deliberate?

“Yes. I wanted to convey that sort of claustrophobic non-specific suburban space, where the parents aren’t much more than ghosts, and for these two girls it’s really just their own private universe. I think of them almost as one psyche, one person in some ways.”

Holly is the closest thing to a well-adjusted figure in the novel, and she’s got some real problems of her own. Has anyone asked Kaslik questions along the lines of “Isn’t anyone in this book okay?”

“Yes, plenty of people,” she says with a chuckle. But it’s the messed up that interests me. I think it was Saul Bellow who said that no characters are worth writing about unless they’re on the verge of collapse. To me that’s just reality. Life’s a mess, you know? We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water.”

For the sisters in Skinny, the sense of isolation is compounded by the fact that their parents are from elsewhere – in this case Hungary – and that something may have happened there that would call their very identity into question.

“A lot of the book is about secrets. Everybody’s got them, and Giselle feels that until she can untie those family knots she’s trapped. I do think that’s a part of being the child of immigrants – no matter how close you are to your family or your roots and culture, there’s something at the bottom of it all that you’ll never ever know.”

There hasn’t been a whole lot of serious fiction examining anorexia, so it’s natural to ask the author what kind of feedback she’s had about Skinny, especially from readers who’ve “been there.”

“I’ve received a lot of letters,” says Kaslik, “and have found that people grasp onto Giselle’s inner voice and believe that the representation is true, and take some comfort from it. It’s a wonderful thing to go into people’s lives that way. Some people who’ve had disorders have said that they can’t read it, that it’s too close, a trigger. Which is kind of scary but it tells me that I have done my job.”

Speaking of readers and immigrants, it’s hard not to wonder how two very important ones – the author’s Hungarian-Canadian parents – have felt about their writer daughter dealing with such raw topics.

“They’re very happy and proud of me, but I do think it’s very difficult for them to read it. It’s not particularly autobiographical, but there are elements of the family in there, of the experience of immigration. I’ve seen that my mother has the book around the house. I think she’s gotten about halfway through it.”

There aren’t many others who’ll stop halfway through Skinny. Ibi Kaslik has written a first novel that is vivid, compelling, at times even darkly funny. For some it will have the ring of personal truth; for many more it may even prove educational – in the best and most entertaining of ways, of course. mRb

Ian McGillis is books columnist for the Montreal Gazette and author of the novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry. His memoir Higher Ground will be published by Biblioasis in 2017.

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