The Skin Beneath
All this is good news, especially for writers. How welcome it is to discover Nairne Holtz’s stylish debut, a novel characterized by taut, sinewy prose, a suspenseful story, and deeply imagined characters readers can actually care about.
The tale begins with a literal and proverbial bang. Sam O’Connor receives an anonymous postcard insinuating that her older sister Chloe was killed by a gunshot wound, not an accidental drug overdose, at New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel. “Your sister died while investigating a political conspiracy,” the postcard reads. “Coincidence? How often do women kill themselves with a gun?”
Now, five years after Chloe’s death, Sam has the chance to find out what really happened. While Sam once followed Chloe everywhere, “dogged her, tagged along,” now she retraces Chloe’s steps, imagining herself inside her sister’s skin as she tracks her final days in Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, and New York.
Though Chloe called Sam “shadow” when they were little, Sam only felt truly alive when she was with her older sister. The girls were abandoned by their mother and raised by a remote father, a bow-tie-wearing art history professor never comfortable with feelings, who kept his daughters’ emotions in a “chokehold.”
Holtz deftly interweaves Sam and Chloe’s shared past so that readers experience the depth of their bond. Flashbacks are notorious pitfalls for novelists, but Holtz manages them gracefully through associative links. The classic hide-and-seek the sisters play as girls, where Chloe doesn’t bother finding her little sister and Sam cries out, “I thought you left me,” is echoed in the present: now Sam needs to “find” Chloe. The effect adds dimension to the story without slowing its momentum.
Montreal is vividly evoked, with all of its charms and contradictions. The city is “an odd amalgam of the sacred and profane,” with strip clubs rubbing up against cathedrals. “You can pray, as well as buy brand-name clothing…and lap dances within a one-block radius.”
Holtz also excels at the kind of pithy asides that make the reader do mental double takes. While sleuthing out one of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, now the owner of an escort service, Sam muses that “he seems to want her to like him, which isn’t the same as him liking her.” Indeed. Holtz jacks this scene up a notch by having the lesbian Sam apply for a job as an escort. The narrative develops an erotic charge when Sam meets up with Chloe’s final roommate and experiences the ultimate coup de foudre with this unconventional beauty who seems to know more than she will own up to. An enticing mesh of fact and fiction emerges that both Sam and readers need to tease apart to reveal the truth. Who was Chloe? And who is Sam herself?
At times in The Skin Beneath a cliché jars or Holtz over-explains. These things grate simply because she is too good for these noisome tics. Perhaps she needs to give her readers more credit. We’ll figure it out without the telegraphing. This is a minor quibble of an otherwise smart, edgy debut. mRb