by Tanya Tagaq
Penguin/Random House Canada
The acclaimed Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq is a totally original performer. She grew up in Cambridge Bay in the far Northern province of Nunavut and has developed her own, very unique take on music that combines her interpretation of traditional Inuit music with EDM, hip hop and avant guard. Her 2014 album Animism won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year.
Split Tooth is Tagaq’s first book, and it is as revelatory as her music. The book is set in an unnamed northern village in 1970s. Our guide is an unnamed girl who lives between the innocence of childhood and the compromised adult world, between the shamanistic world of her ancestors and assimilation. Early on, the book is more memoir than fiction. Our young guide shares the joys of playing and exploring her arctic community with the everyday terrors of abusive adults. The drunken uncles and the lemmings are both part of the environment.
As the story progresses, the narrative gets more complicated. Scenes morph from the mundane, (like kids getting high and laughing at farts), to an attack by a demonic spirit, and back again. The margins of reality are fluid. Mundane daily events bump into the sacred and it’s hard to tell which is more “real.” It’s always tempting to give away plot points when reviewing a book. I really don’t want to go into much detail because it would spoil the revelations, and because any recap I’d give would be totally inadequate.
I recommend listening to the audio book of Split Tooth because I think it reveals nuance and subtleties that I might have otherwise missed. Tanya Tagaq has a voice that brings you into her world. Her accent and cadence instantly reminded me of my own limited travels in the arctic. If I were reading the novel, I don’t know that I would catch the subtle shadings and poetic flights as well. Listening to Tanya Tagaq is similar to hearing William S. Burroughs or Neil Gaiman read their work. Once you hear them, you’ll always hear their voices when you’re reading one of their texts. .
The final reason I recommend the audio book format of Split Tooth are the musical interludes between chapters. The short segments of throat singing are powerful and something you definitely can’t get from the print version.