________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 21 . . . .June 24, 2005



Ibolya Kaslik.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2004.
243 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 0-00-639228-8.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4



While I craved attention, I was terrified of letting someone else into my imperfect, hateful world. It was me, and only me, who could control my cravings; denying myself food was proof that I was stronger, better than most people. But I was lonely for touch. Still, my own stiff regimen of stripping myself to the core and forcing myself to turn away from those curious eyes made me feel proud, if alienated; I was trading my new-found power of flesh for something more trustworthy, something pure.

Naturally skinny, but not dangerously so, I trod the line between waif and child as I grew into a woman. And hunger became my salvation; after a while, hunger, my sexless, undemanding suitor, was my only constant friend.


In Skinny, her first novel, Ibi Kaslik weaves together an incredible number and variety of themes and plots. Traumatic events are coloured by constant tension, secrecy and jealousy. This is a book for readers willing to open themselves to a vivid story which is both haunting and compelling. It is not for the faint hearted!

     Chapters are written in the first person and alternate between Giselle and her younger sister, Holly. The two are a study in contrasts, yet have interesting similarities of character. Giselle is a 22-year-old top medical student and also an anorexic who often seems lost and on the point of disintegration. Holly is her 14-year-old sister. Both characters seek control of their bodies—Giselle through her strict eating regimen and Holly through excelling at sports.

     On another level, we see that ironically Giselle routinely hears a voice telling her how to behave and what to eat, yet Holly must wear a hearing aid as she was born deaf in one ear. On the other hand, Holly clearly sees her father (even as a ghost) while Giselle spends much of the novel lamenting her lack of a true relationship with her dad and her inability to 'see' him clearly, i.e. understand him. This is only one example of the number of opposites in Kaslik's novel.

     The girls' parents are Hungarian immigrants who demand a great deal of their two daughters. There are questions and contradictions surrounding their early relationship and their coming to Canada, and Giselle spends a great deal of time searching for answers which might hopefully lead to love and understanding in this rather dysfunctional family. These questions represent an area beyond her control as her father has died of a heart attack and her mother is either unwilling or unable to share her life story. Giselle, therefore, seeks control by other means. Like young women of her age, Giselle searches for meaningful relationships not only within her family but in the wider world. She is a mass of contradictions, sometimes feeling inadequate and inferior and at other times, superior. She yearns for closeness yet is a master of isolation. Needless to say, her sexual awakening is an emotional roller coaster.

     Kaslik is a gifted storyteller who draws readers into the hearts and mind of both Giselle and Holly in this multi-layered and well-written novel. She doesn't hesitate to deal with private and painful feelings and circumstances which our society normally endeavours to hide. Symbolically, Giselle often 'hides' in her university residence room or library, in her bedroom and eventually in a hospital room. Yet, although we sense her alienation and disconnectedness, readers are also privy to her innermost self. Kaslik's writing is so vivid that the reader feels rather like a peeping tom who is watching something intensely private and personal yet cannot bear to turn away.

     There is no particular setting in the book, underlying the idea that this could happen anywhere, to anyone. Some of the writing involves very sensual descriptions while in other places it is clinical and factual, even including quotes from medical texts. There are funny bits as well, although it is a dark humour that suits the themes and characters of the novel.

     This book deals with difficult subjects. It is not an 'easy read,' but one is compelled to continue from chapter to chapter. It is confusing, exhilarating, magnetic and repulsive all at the same time...rather like the main character herself.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson is a former teacher of high school English and French and teacher-librarian in Peterborough, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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