May 2023

The Skin and Its Girl

By Sarah Cypher
Review by
Sarah Cypher’s first novel is a story within a story within a story, a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.
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Sarah Cypher’s debut novel is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters who inhabit it. A swirling multigenerational family epic, it’s about the power that stories hold over families and whole nations, and the mysterious ways that certain indelible narratives can supplant real memories. Through an unusual structure that bucks narrative convention, Cypher explores the blurry lines between storytelling and history, memory and identity, exile and home.

Born with blue skin into a diasporic Palestinian family, Betty Rummani grows up awash in stories. During the first years of her life, she is passed between family members: her scientist mother, who often buries herself in work; her white father, desperate to remake the three of them into a functioning family unit; and her great aunt Nuha, the true keeper of the family’s stories. 

Betty recounts this turbulent childhood many years later as an adult faced with a difficult decision: to stay in the city she knows, or to follow the woman she loves to a new country. Searching for clarity, she hungrily turns to the notebooks left behind by Nuha when she died, and begins to piece together the surprising story of her aunt’s life.

Though Betty narrates the novel in the first person, she often feels like a peripheral character. She slips into Nuha’s voice and life as if she were Nuha herself. The book is full of vivid scenes from before Betty’s birth and memories of Nuha’s life in Palestine. This unusual structure can feel a bit clunky at times, as Betty recounts not only events she never witnessed but also the associated complex emotional realities. But readers who can relax into this kind of magical storytelling will find it both whimsical and powerful.

Cypher’s prose has a softness to it and a melodic cadence. It often feels as if Betty is speaking directly to the reader, though when she breaks the fourth wall, she does so slyly, so quietly you’ll miss it if you blink. The story feels like it’s being untangled as it’s told, and this—along with subtle glimpses of almost-magic—provides the sense of mystery that permeates the book.

The Skin and Its Girl is an intriguing debut, a story within a story within a story, and a lyrical and haunting journey through generations and across oceans.

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The Skin and Its Girl

The Skin and Its Girl

By Sarah Cypher
ISBN 9780593499535

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