Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lee Martin - Break the Skin

Like everything Lee Martin writes, his new novel, Break the Skin, has all the hallmarks of his style: smooth, clear prose, well-crafted and complex characters, and a kind of generosity of spirit that is hard to quantify.  If you read enough of Martin's work (I've read his collection The Least You Need to Know, and two of his earlier novels, The Bright Forever and River of Heaven) you know what to expect from his work, though I don't mean to suggest that translates into predictability.  Martin clearly cares for and respects his characters, even when they act in ways that may be harmful to themselves or others.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away (follow the link on the title above for the jacket synopsis), but Break the Skin is told from two alternating first-person narrators: Laney, a young Walmart employee from Mt. Gilead, Illinois, and Miss Baby, a tattoo artist in Denton, Texas.  The two story lines at first seem disparate, but they soon start to come together in interesting, and rather unexpected, ways.  The two narrators, while different in age, occupation, and race (Miss Baby is Mexican), are similar in that they want nothing more than to feel like they matter to someone.  They want to be wanted, and they want to be loved.  This want--need--in their lives creates a kind of debilitating fear, especially as pertains to Laney.  Laney has the gift of a beautiful singing voice--something her mother thinks she could use to get out of Mt. Gilead--but she is too afraid to use it.  Instead, she gets caught up with Delilah Dade and Rose MacAdow who feel equally "stuck" in life, and Laney's life with them begins to take increasingly dark and violent turns. 

What I found most interesting about the novel is the way it examines, with dignity, a certain "class" of people.  Martin writes thoughtfully and generously about characters lesser writers might simply use as a caricatures or "types" - they work at Walmart, live in trailers, etc.  Life has beat these people down to such an extent that they no longer think they have any power over their lives.  They want so much for their lives to matter, but their fear keeps them doing anything about it.  In fact, they even resort to casting spells and putting hexes on people.  I admit, I struggled some with this aspect of the novel, but it shows, perhaps better than anything else, how powerless these characters feel.  Their desire for some control over their fate pushes them to believe (or at least want to believe) in magic.   

At it's heart, I guess you could call Break the Skin a mystery, though that's certainly selling it short - don't expect any major genre elements.  In a way it reminds me of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, in that in Break the Skin you don't know (until the end) who is telling the truth, or even if their "truth" is true, though Chaon's novel much more consciously employs and toys with genre elements.  (Chaon, by the way, is another excellent writer and a Midwesterner to boot.  Check him out if you haven't already - his collection Among the Missing is really great.)

All in all, I think you'll enjoy Break the Skin, but, then again, anything with Lee Martin's name on the spine is going to be worth checking out.

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*Don't forget, the giveaway for a brand new copy of Break the Skin ends Friday, June 17th at midnight.  See the previous post and get your comments submitted.  

Also, check back in a few days for a The Story is the Cure first - a Q&A with Lee Martin! 

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