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Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq review – coming of age in the Tundra

Myth is braided with history in a reality that is mundane as it is magical with every step

Split Tooth book cover

Tanya Tagaq is known in Canada for her prize-winning, punkish work as a musician. Her debut novel Split Tooth is a visceral work of brilliance, weaving moments of memoir, poems, drawings and Inuit folklore.  

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Tagaq narrates the wondrous and perilous life of an Inuk girl in the 1970s, as she comes of age in a small town in Nunavut, northernmost Canada. In the Arctic tundra, there are seasonal spates of 24 hours of sheer sunlight or pure darkness. The unnamed narrator moves in a non-linear manner through her adolescence, skipping between school, parties, the sea and glistening landscapes.  Naturally, her time is not confined to a clock’s rhythm.  

This teenage narrator has her own acute understanding of the world, in the dangers and ecstasies that await. In gatherings with elders, other young people, and through communion with sacred beings of the earth, she finds respite.

She forms part of a community who remain resilient, preserving their wisdom while contending with chronic deprivation. With the Canadian government’s consistent erasure of Inuit traditions and language, from residential schools to capitalist, colonial encroachments upon native land, the community is marked by historic harm.  

Following this legacy of grief, the narrator and her peers endure repeated sexual abuse from adults who have also suffered their own silent hurt. This is a novel beyond wounds, where brutality and compassion hold hands. Myth is braided with history in a reality that is mundane as it is magical with every step. Split Tooth records a life of loving and finding the sublime in the face of effacement.  

Split Tooth book cover

Annie Hayter is a writer and poet.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq is out now (And Other Stories, £14.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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