“No one’s skin fits perfectly.”
Suzan Palumbo’s debut story collection Skin Thief is a dark exploration of metamorphosis, cultural fusion, and identities at turns warring and coexisting inside the same vessel. A common thread woven through stories is the subcutaneous need to shed one’s skin—one’s duty or forcefully assigned reality—and don another.
The collection opens with the dazzlingly breathless “Pull of the Herd,” which follows a family of magical deer women living in the woods. “This is the third time in as many full moons a skin thief has tried to take one of us.” But Agni, the narrator, took her own skin, the deer pelt that had always felt too constrictive around her, and locked it in a chest inside her lover’s—a human woman’s—cabin. This decision brings her at odds with her shapeshifting family, who blame Agni’s restless transformations for a past tragedy even when Agni tries to warn them about the human hunters out to hurt the herd. Throughout the story, Agni feels torn between skins; between loyalty to the herd, her lover, and her own self.
The motif of ill-fitting skins appears numerous times throughout the collection, with enough variation to avoid predictability. Palumbo does not hesitate to experiment with different voices and perspectives. “Claw and Bone” is told in second person, full of lush descriptions and visceral fear. It is a story that deals with domestic abuse, and how being immersed in it can shape you into someone who seeks out sharp, wild things. Or, in this story’s case—bones. Each person must choose a skull or other specimen from an animal whose traits they will mimic in life. The narrator’s mother encourages her to embody the meek nature of small rodents. Yet the narrator chooses leopard claws for their ferocity, hoping to escape the fate of her mother but worrying she will end up resembling her violent father instead. Her peers shy away from her monstrosity, denying her the sense of safety and belonging. In the end, the roles of prey and predator fuse together like an infant’s skull, proving themselves a false binary, and that people are often capable of both.
“Tesselate” works in conversation with “Claw and Bone,” as it delves into similar themes of domestic abuse and how it can have a psychosomatic effect—not animal parts this time, but wooden jigsaw pieces spanning the narrator’s mother’s green-felt skin. “Who’s going to want you?” the narrator asks herself once the first tiles appear across her own body—oh-so-easy to break at the hands of a careless partner. Yet the cracks also tell a story in skin, a rich tapestry of experiences as each new transformation works in synergy with the jigsaw whole.
Skin becomes a literal manifestation—a suit one can slip in and out of—in “Tara’s Mother’s Skin.”“You see this skin? […] It slides away easier than a fresh bride’s satin nightgown. I fold it in my mortar and blaze like fire in the night.” Tara’s mother—the nameless woman who lives in the narrator’s village—is a soucouyant, or so the neighbor bullies and gossips claim. The children throw rice at her to force her to count the grains and prevent a soucouyant attack. Farrah, a young university student, visits Tara’s mother on a hot afternoon as part of her research, wanting to correct the neighborhood’s assumption about the impoverished, elderly woman. Yet Farrah also has an ulterior motive in visiting Tara’s mother, as she oscillates between fear and longing for the secrets of shapeshifting, unveiled.
In “Her Voice, Unmasked,” metal alloy becomes the skin of an automaton opera singer. After being inspired by a kind ballet dancer, the automaton protagonist chooses to slough off her ethereal façade and reveal her unnerving inner workings of rubber, tubes, and gear. She unravels herself as a rebellion against her selfish creator in front of an entire opera house—to disastrous consequences.
But skin also takes on a metaphorical aspect in other stories, like in “Laughter Among the Trees,” in which an old haunting follows a family like generational trauma across borders. “We breathed lies, contorting our tongues; bending our bodies to suit the cold; feigning that we fit this place.” Ana was born in Trinidad, then migrated to Canada with her parents, struggling to find a home among her peers. Yet her sister Sab, born in the new country, breezes through life, to Ana’s envy. After the upheaval of Sab’s disappearance from a family camping trip, Ana—no longer the eldest daughter but an only child—teaches herself how to act like her dead sister. She clothes herself in an illusion of Sab’s confidence, her mannerisms, even her vitriol toward Ana in order to succeed in life. Ana’s lover also looks like a grown-up version of her sister, a detail that reads as self-flagellatory for the role Ana played in her sister’s death, but also encapsulates the perpetuity of trauma. This is a story about ghosts that beckon, and ghosts we follow into the dark.
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Another emerging theme is having to let go of what one holds dear, even when one wants to cling to it, for fear of being left behind. In “Apolépisi” (Greek for descaling) a transformation is occurring scene by scene, scale by scale. The mermaid narrator’s significant other is slowly losing pieces of her tail while the narrator is forced to witness this inexorable progress, knowing at the end of it, her lover will travel to the water’s surface for good—or stay with her and drown.
“I ebbed and flowed with the tides and the flux of people who loved and left, leaving no mark upon the sand.” Another transformation comes in the form of reincarnated lives in “Propagating Peonies.” Two women are caught in a perpetual cycle, unable to stay together for long, yet unwilling to let each other go; to stop propagating that old, possessive hurt. The two characters briefly meet each cycle, then repel each other again in an often violent, always desperate dance between permanence and change.
Feelings of anger, dissatisfaction, and selfishness are another connecting thread between protagonists. Palumbo’s characters have uncharitable thoughts, make rush decisions, act through their baser instincts without being punished for it by the narrative.
“Kill Jar,” the longest story in the collection, is a tale of self-discovery and revenge. Adelaide, the daughter of a poison collector, is plagued by dreams of snakes swallowing her whole. Her authoritarian father, a scholar who keeps venomous specimens in jars, gives her a powder to suppress her dreams. As Adelaide grows up, she begins to notice strange phenomena around her father’s greenhouse. Meanwhile, her attraction for her maid crescendos, until Adelaide makes a terrible discovery: her skin is poison to anyone she touches. When a snake woman who can talk to her mother’s bones visits the garden, Adelaide realizes her father has been lying about her ancestry her whole life.
Although a lot of the stories focus on grim realities and promise no happy endings, the stories in Skin Thief are not without tenderness. The final piece in the collection, the heartbreaking “Douen,” written entirely in dialect, is about a faceless child ghost who’s lingering near her family’s home. A child who is embraced despite the vindictive destruction she has wreaked in her struggle to be seen, to be heard. There is community to be found in these stories, rejecting a shallow preoccupation with strict morality.
Palumbo draws inspiration from a rich gothic tradition mixed with queer body horror and Caribbean folklore. She wields language with scalpel-like precision as she dissects each character’s skin. Underneath, she reveals red meat, monstrous desire, gangrenous alienation. Characters struggle—with familial bonds, environments in flux, and the ever-shifting self—and they struggle selfishly, angrily, imperfectly. The grotesque and the sublime are knit together, weft and warp, impossible to extricate or tell apart.
And why should monstrosity be distinguished from humanity, when they are two parts of the same pelt, seamlessly woven together?