Book Club: Book that is haunting, brooding, exhilarating, and tender all at once
The novel delves into the life of an Inuk girl growing up in Nunavut, Canada, during the 1970s. She knows joy, and friendship, and parents’ love. She knows boredom, and listlessness, and bullying. She knows the tedium of the everyday world, and the raw, amoral power of the ice and sky, the seductive energy of the animal world. She knows the ravages of alcohol, and violence at the hands of those she should be able to trust. She sees the spirits that surround her, and the immense power that dwarfs all of us. When she becomes pregnant, she must navigate all this. In this acclaimed debut novel, Tanya Tagaq explores the grittiest features of a small Arctic town and the electrifying proximity of the worlds of animals and of myth.
Tagaq is an original disruptor, a prominent figure at the forefront of significant social, political and environmental change. She is a member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of the Polaris Music Prize (a Canadian equivalent to the Mercury Music Prize). Split Tooth was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award for Published Prose in English.
Sheffield-based publisher And Other Stories published Split Tooth in the UK on 3 October 2023. Signed copies can be found at various independent bookshops in Sheffield, including Juno Books, La Biblioteka, Rhyme and Reason and Hillsborough Bookshop.
Extract from Split Tooth:
There is a small bog on the tundra about three minutes outside of town. The bog is littered with pieces of plywood blown by the fierce Arctic winds from various construction sites. The mighty winter winds and the permafrost leave only a few months for building. The construction crews work twenty-four hours a day under the midnight sun. Chasing a few pieces of plywood that have been carried off by the High Arctic winds is not a good reason to put down your tools.
Under those pieces of plywood is shelter from the wind for a myriad of species. The plywood becomes home in the vast treelessness. The wood becomes a dark sanctuary safe from all the predators. We find creatures underneath the plywood, from beetles and baby birds to lemmings.
The lemmings are my favourite. They get so startled as I rip off the ceiling from their safety, blindly running to find escape from this monster that has changed their world.
After chasing and capturing them I hold each one in my cupped hands, singing to it until its heartbeat returns to normal cadence.
I put them in my pockets. Don’t put more than one in each pocket or they will start fighting. Not many creatures are good in overpopulated spaces.
I have about six pockets in my windbreaker. Six lemmings a day keeps the doctor away.
Whistling my way home and brimming with anticipation for my daily ritual; I have only five lemmings today.
There is a small back porch in our house. Since nobody ever uses the back door, the porch is my domain. It’s a good place to hide things, a good place to pretend the rest of the world is mine. Stopping at the fridge to pick out a few carrots and some celery, I then lay the lemmings out on the floor of the bare porch.
The carrots belong in the corner. The animals are afraid at first, but cannot resist the smorgasbord of food. I leave them happily munching and starting to relax.
We have a fish tank in our living room. There are newts, snails, and fish in there. The snails procreate too quickly for the health of the tank, so my ritual begins by killing off a minimum of ten snails by simply squishing their little bodies against the glass, shells and all.
It is very satisfying to me to hear their shells popping, like when you find a particularly dirty part on the rug while you are vacuuming, and it all clinks up the tube in a hollow symphony.
Part two of my ritual is to take one of the newts by the tail and put it into my mouth. It sits there on my tongue, the little suction cups on its toes grasping my taste buds.
I close my mouth. It crawls around in confusion for a minute, and then finds comfort in the heat and darkness. It squirms its
way under my tongue, and usually falls asleep there. I do some chores as it rests, opening my mouth to let some fresh air in. I go and look into the bathroom mirror.
The newt is almost always sleeping, its cute little eyes closed and restful, using my tongue as a huge duvet. I find it adorable. I return him to the tank, and go to find my furry friends.
The lemmings are fed and full. I lie down in the small porch. I can fit lengthwise in the porch if my knees are bent. I fan out my long hair on the floor and wait. I lie still.
The lemmings calm, and begin to stir. They find my hair. This awakens their burrowing instinct. They make their way to
my scalp, seeking safety. The smallest of paws massaging my head at lightning speed.
They never leave the safety of my hair. They keep going for about ten minutes before they get weary of attempting to dig. It’s the best ten minutes of my day. It’s still the best massage I have ever gotten. Once they tire, I put them back into my pockets and return them to where I found them. I have to get them out before my parents come home. The lemmings are full of carrots and happy. I will
come back tomorrow. My mother once found one small piece of lemming poop in my hair. She laughed so hard and wondered how it got in there. I told her I was lying down on the tundra. I have kept this small ritual to myself until now.