Cover Image: The Skin and Its Girl

The Skin and Its Girl

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Despite watching many Fast & Furious movies and understanding family is something a person more often finds than is born into, I’ve always wanted biological queer elders. In this fantasy, an uncle or grandmother or second-cousin-twice-removed catches my eye at family dinners — humoring my feelings of disconnect from the everyday antics of the heteronormative nuclear family structure. They’d bring me to my first Pride, take me to an annual screening of Paris is Burning, let me be the flower girl at their gay wedding, and give me formative LGBTQ literature when I needed it most. To some extent, they’d be proof I was not an anomaly.

Like any fantasy, it’s a frothy confection worthy of interrogation.

Who could say I would get along with this imagined relative? That we’d share the same politics? Love the same queer poets or cringe at the same Drag Race contestants? That they’d be willing to mentor me at all? And saddest of all hypotheticals: what if I actually already have a queer elder and will never know it thanks to the historical closet or a very valid modern fear of being out?

I found myself returning to these fantasy-haunting questions as I read The Skin and Its Girl by Sarah Cypher.

In Cypher’s debut novel, a narrator speaks to her dead auntie in the hopes of gleaning some insight about a life-altering decision on her horizon. Elspeth, affectionately referred to as Betty by her late Aunt Nuha Rummani, must choose whether to follow the love of her life to another country or remain near her troubled mother.

If the stakes don’t seem high enough yet, consider that Betty is a queer woman born with skin as blue as the soap her Rummani family once made in Palestine. Consider that her greatest ally has been long dead, her mother’s mental health is in decline, and her existence is one of exile — national, emotional, sexual, and generational. In this moment of need, Betty leans on a queer elder.

But when one has a sprawling family capable of holding grudges and secrets with equally strong death grips, finding answers or advice isn’t simple.

Cypher takes the legacy of the Rummani family, once wealthy and powerful, and distills it in Betty. Through gradual epiphanies and prose that has a mythological quality, Cypher’s protagonist comes to understand the true weight of familial history and the untapped power of her singular future.

This is a story which understands the (terrifying) power of storytelling. That a family can define a person’s entire sense of self through a series of seemingly harmless anecdotes. You may always be the cousin who wrecked their very first car. Or the otherwise obedient daughter who jumped out of a treehouse. Or the father who never remembered the names of your children’s closest friends. The wrong story can lead you through fatal chapters of life and on to unhappy endings.

But a loved one also has the power to describe you back into yourself, buoy you with personal myths and fables that lend you courage and comfort. The phrase “there is no truth but in old women’s tales” is repeated throughout the novel to drive home this point. Betty returns to her aunt’s grave — despite their differences, despite her aunt’s stubbornness and repression, despite time — because Nuha gave her a necessary story. Gave her stories like a second skin to deflect the narrative nonsense of daily life.

The Skin and Its Girl has provoked some readers to lament its nonlinear timeline. But this novel embodies magical realism so well because of its frequent time-hopping. The magic comes from Betty’s skin (as well as seductive gazelles, burning but unharmed boys, and the Tower of Babel), while realism is found in its frayed and knotted narrative threads. By some measure, Betty cannot proceed forward until retelling the story of her life. She cannot continue without knowing her family history, no matter how interwoven it is with pain and loss.

As Aunt Nuha used to tell her beloved niece, “...a piece of yarn stretched out in a straight line is a waste of wool.”

I finished this novel while making some rather big decisions about my own future. It helped me understand the balance between what we owe to those who raised us and what we owe to ourselves. I don’t (to the best of my knowledge) have a queer elder to reckon with, but I’m proud to have taken some of my personal myths back into my own hands. For the first time in years, I’m telling my story in a way that makes sense, even if it is only to myself.

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A family history and a soul searching conversation with a departed loved one sprinkled with folk tales and magical realism, “The Skin and Its Girl” is a challenging read, but very early on I was impressed with the prose, tone, and structure. The density of detail naturally slows you down while reading and leaning into that slowness helped me take in and process the order of events and scattered cast of characters. Non-linear isn’t for everyone, but it’s usually for me and this was no exception. The contrasts between the family history in Palestine told in layers of stories factual and otherwise by Auntie Nuha and Betty’s/Elspeth’s memories of her thorny childhood in present day Oakland/Bay Area and Portland kept resetting the narrative energy in a good way - both voices were heavy, though not without their joys, and it was nice to get a break and “visit” the other story for a time. A wonderful debut spanning centuries and incredibly skilled in the telling.

<b>CW:</b> suicidal ideation, attempted suicide (off page), depression, miscarriage, racism, homophobia

<i>Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine for an e-ARC of this book!</i>

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An intriguing tale of family told in the second person by Betty, who is grieving the death of her great aunt Nuha, the only person who understood her. Nuha was in the closet; Betty is both in the closet and her skin is blue. A Palestinian American, she recounts the tales she was told about Palestine and she struggles with where she fits in the world. The writing is both lush and convoluted (the second person gets tiresome) -and it takes patience. I hoped for a more plot driven novel (it's a great set up) but this circles around on itself too much for that. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC. For fans of literary fiction.

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This debut novel is narrated by Betty, a young woman born with blue skin into a Palestinian family. The entire novel is written as a conversation with her Aunt Nuha as Betty visits her gravesite. Through the chapters, the reader is introduced to Betty's family: her Aunt Nuha, of course, but also her mother, Tashi who struggled with mental illness, her father Adam who tried his best to keep their little family unit together, and her grandmother Saeeda who inherited much wealth from the family's soap factory in Palestine. The reader is given glimpses of the the past as it is interwoven with the present in lyrically beautiful prose. Betty recounts her struggles being blue, being an Arab, struggling with her mother's illness, and her own queer identity.

I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. I think the 2nd person narration just didn't work well for me. The past and present were interspersed in such a way that I wasn't always sure of the chronology. The story and the characters were wonderful but the style of the novel brought down my rating for this one.

Thank you to Random House and Ballantine Books for early access to this novel. This one is out on April 25, 2023.

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The Skin and Its girl is a beautifully written family saga and debut by Sarah Cypher. It’s a character driven novel narrated by Betty, who is born blue. The words are lyrical and it’s a powerful and moving story. Those who enjoy multigenerational stories should give this a read.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine for this ARC.

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I can really get behind a good family saga and this one delivers with such glorious prose and storytelling and characters and it is so unique! Definite recommend from me if you like this genre.

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I've only read one really good family saga this year and I've been desperate for another one. The Skin and Its Girl is that. Additionally, second person POV can be SO difficult to pull off, but Cypher does it masterfully here. Read this for those two reasons!

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This was a beautifully written book that at its core is all about shared histories and our connection to all things ancient. It talks a lot about family history and connection but also generational trauma especially in the sense of being queer. Definitely enjoyed this one and would recommend reading.

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this story of Betty, her blue skin, and the secrets of her favorite aunt was incredibly promising to me. I Love reading about the queer experience in the US, especially when it is coming from diverse voices. that theme, as well as the enticing title, is what encouraged me to request this book on NetGalley. I set incredibly high expectations when I started reading (which is perhaps my fault) and unfortunately, this novel did not meet all of them. I really enjoyed the retellings of the past (Betty's birth, her Aunt's backstory, etc) but I struggled to appreciate the connections between Betty's modern-day situation and her past. I think perhaps the connections between past and present could have flowed in a different way to incorporate all of the story's main characters. With all that being said, I absolutely loved the second-person format of the story. I'm a sucker for when characters speak to someone and we get to hear it all. It's difficult to do, but I think this story was at least on the right track. I wish there had been a more in-depth discussion about Betty's queerness and how she was affected in that regard by her Aunt. That aspect of the story felt a bit shallow when it could've been an incredibly impactful facet of Betty's personhood.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of this book but felt that it lacked depth in the themes that mattered (and that were advertised in its summary). I find that there were a lot of aspects of this story that I truly latched onto, but overall it was not exactly for me. Even though this wasn't a 5-star read for me, I am so grateful I was given the chance to read this through the publisher and NetGalley.

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This is a story that meticulously traces a Palestinian American family. It looks at how the past influences the future. It shows lots of research going into showing the complexities of living up to your heritage. It is a fairly easy story to read.

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This book is well-written and explores questions of truth and history, particularly within families. The main narrator and her Auntie are both queer, and the contrast between how the two of them accept that identity underpins key aspects of the book. My only criticism of the book is that the narrative structure makes it repetitive. It’s done on purpose and echoes both oral traditions and non-Western ways of organizing materials, but it meant spending much more time reading and sometimes skimming past the same text again and again.

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A solidly character driven book, Elspeth (Betty) is talking to her dead Aunt Nuha. This results in the entire book being in the second person, which I find a bit disconcerting since I am not her Aunt Nuha and I also find it odd to have a character being told things they've done and should already know. Yes, this is for the benefit of the reader, but still odd to me and probably the reason for my own reading discomfort. Over the course of the book, the fact that Elspeth has blue skin feels like just a small part of the huge tapestry of the history of the Rummani family, primarily its women. Once I could place each character individually (a downside to reading a book with second person narration - and my only complaint), I loved reading how each character was developed with empathy and understanding. The interaction between the family members was honest and the little surprises that popped up along the way felt natural and not forced or put there to shock the reader. This will be a book I will continue to think about for a long time.

Thanks to Random House for a copy of the book. This review is my own opinion.

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This review also on http://dnruttan.com

In a word: Wow. This book has easily shot to the top of my list of my favorite books of the year. If you like truly weird fiction about immigrant experiences, family lore and a literary style, this may be your book, too.

I was blown away by the prose in Sarah Cypher's debut, "The Skin and Its Girl." Such beautiful, lyrical sentences. The story is definitely slow-paced in that more literary style that focuses on language and emotional states. This is the story of Elspeth "Betty" Rummani, a Palestinian American in the Pacific Northwest born with an unusual medical condition of possessing blue skin. But instead of taking the typical fetishization-of-identity narrative that I would have expected, it is instead a story of the power of stories themselves in a complex family of gifted storytellers fleeing troubled pasts and identities they could not reconcile with societal expectations.

I felt the story focused a little too much on Betty's first three years and not enough on her adulthood for starting from her birth, but it was a layered story told by Betty in first person to the second person persona who was Betty's great-aunt, revealing the family's past as once-wealthy merchants who owned a soap factory in Palestine before exile and history tore them apart. I felt like I was sitting in a room with Betty's aunties hearing them tell stories and soon forgot about the slow pace and became enchanted with the prose and how Betty's unusual skin color became the least remarkable thing about her.

It was also about her struggles with her suicidal mother, her sexuality, her desire for invisibility in a world in which she was conspicuous in ways that the world could not explain. The passages about her mother's mental illness were difficult to read but sensitively handled. Betty reviews her life with her great-aunt in front of her great-aunt's headstone, trying to decide whether to leave her mother behind to join her beloved in a foreign country. We know what she will ultimately decide, but the story isn't about the decision at all; it's about relationships, and a family full of stories, faith, secrets and a rich folkloric past, strangers in strange lands taking comfort in saving each other again and again.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy. I'm voluntarily leaving a review.

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There were a lot of elements in THE SKIN AND ITS GIRL that I really loved, but they didn't really cohere until the last quarter of the book.

Most of the novel is directed at "you": I didn't take this to be a second-person POV, but rather a discussion between Betty and Nuha. Cypher does this better in some chapters rather than others, in part because as you (the reader, not Betty nor Nuha :)) read, the narrative hops and skips through time. In some chapters it's actually unclear who the "you" is meant to be. Depending on your patience for winding narratives, you'll be more or less endeared by this.

I'm a sucker for a story-within-a-story, so I did love the digressions from Nuha, from Betty, and from other characters, but I think much of the beginning of the novel felt like stronger stand-alone vignettes than a more cohesive novel. While that didn't work for me, I think it could be really enjoyable for a reader who enjoys a slower tale, reading bits at a time.

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This was an interesting and thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed the writing, and the cover artwork is really stunning!

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Thanks so much to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and provide an honest review! I loved the synopsis and was excited to jump into reading. The beginning was intriguing, but it quickly became overwhelming to follow. The 2nd person POV with constant randomly changing timeline was so hard to follow. The chapters are also long, so I found I needed lots of time to get through them. I kept rereading pages trying to keep up. Unfortunately I decided to DNF this one. It’s beautifully written and if you like 2nd person POV and have the time to finish long chapters in a sitting this might be the book for you!

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This is a shocking debut; the writing is so mature and completely enthralling. This multi-generational saga is beautiful.

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This forthcoming novel was absolutely fascinating. It has a little Rushdie in its preoccupation with narrative structure across continents and generations, but mostly, is like nothing I’ve read before.

The novel is narrated by Betty Rummani, born with skin as blue as her Palestinian family’s famed soap (The soap factory has been destroyed, and some family members think she might be the soul of the soap). The story is told in second-person address to her aunt, Nuha Rummani, who arrives at the hospital when Betty is born and convinces her mother not to give her up for adoption. Nuha is a major force in Betty’s life, advocating for her, protecting her, and eventually serving as a queer role model.

The plot is both epic, with the unraveling of intergenerational dramas that intersect with the changing status of Palestine, and understated, with Betty’s parents’ complicated relationship and her mother’s mental health challenges. When I think back on it, this book was much more about the how than the what. The way the plot is communicated, with layers of narration and lots of metacommentary on the nature of storytelling—both traditional forms from the Arab world and the half-truths that make up families. This tricky structure won’t be for everyone, but I found it to be endlessly interesting.

I do wish a bit that I’d picked this up at a different time. I’ve been reading it bit by bit as I travel, and it is confusing, so I feel like I lost a lot of the narrative threads. But it was also too compelling for me to want to put it off for later! I look forward to revisiting this unique debut.

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An important and innovative debut from a novelist whose career I will be excited to follow into subsequent books.

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This book wasn’t bad, however I found it way longer than it needed to be.

Maybe that’s the style the author was going for but it was very repetitive.

The plot itself was really intriguing. The sacrifices that the older generations had to make for the newer ones to explore their sexuality freely and be loved differently was so beautifully done.

All the characters really had their own issues to work through, but through it all their family and their culture kept them together even if it was strained.

3/5 starts. I’d still recommend 💙

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