A bildungsroman unlike any other, Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq takes us to the Canadian Arctic and a landscape of boundless terrain and immense skies. It’s the 1970’s and a young Inuk girl tells of her childhood in this extraordinary environment, where deprivation and discrimination sit uneasily beside a magical northern world of nature and mythology. When puberty arrives, it will bestow a shamanic gift upon the girl and prompt her, incredibly, to seek communion with the Northern Lights.
Tagaq tells us that children on the cusp of puberty appear to instinctively grasp that ‘this magic will end soon’ and in a story told through the turn of the seasons, her unnamed narrator shares some of it with us. She tells us about the glorious aromas released by the spring thaw, sweet lichen, the footprints of last fall that had been frozen in time. It’s a season of freedom after three months of darkness and the kids run amok around town, the returning sun coaxing them out onto the tundra.
These kids are attuned to nature in the most visceral and lusty way. In a wonderful passage, the girl recalls the experience of scooping a live trout into her mouth and letting it swim down her throat, tickling its way down to her tummy. Fresh flesh prompts ancient memory.
‘When flesh is eaten live, you glean the spirit with the energy…The farther away you get from the time of death, the less energy meat carries.’
This is why wild predators are so strong.
In contrast with the exhilarating Arctic landscape, small-town life is repressive. School is a place of boredom and bullying and home isn’t always a safe haven. For reasons that become clear later, alcohol consumption is rife in sections of Inuit society, along with violence and sexual abuse. Our narrator, trembling on the edge of adolescence, is all too familiar with adult failings.
By summer, puberty is here, with strange dreams and visions and a crackling psychic energy. At a sleepover one night, the girl believes she is undergoing a spiritual awakening. It is simultaneously terrifying and magnificent, and will lead to a pilgrimage to the Northern Lights. Lying motionless on the ice, she invites the lights to come to her.
‘Legend says that if you whistle or scream at them, they will come down and cut off your head.’
The truth is stranger than she could ever imagine.
Split Tooth is an astonishing work of magical realism. Tagaq gives us a vivid portrait of a majestic and little-understood part of the world, interwoven with both native wisdom and harsh societal realities. It is all connected she tells us, the march of economic progress, the ‘obsession with money and white skin,’ our scarred Earth, and our ancestors, waiting for us in the wings.
The award-winning Tagaq is also an acclaimed Inuk throat singer, whose transfixing music is an amazing experience in itself. Her latest album, Tongues, uses passages from the novel. Listen also to Tagaq reading from Split Tooth on her UK publisher’s website, www.andotherstories.org.
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq is published by And Other Stories, 150 pages.