Book Review

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

great prose-verse novel about nunavut in the 70s

This was written umm, I dunno, around the 13th March?

cw: sexual abuse, COVID-19 pandemic

It’s now been a few days since I finished reading Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, and a few things have changed.

The world has started falling apart.

It has become impossible to buy toilet roll. It has become difficult to buy dried foodstuffs or any food that comes in a can.

It has become difficult to cough or sneeze or sniff in public without people looking at you as if they are thinking of how quickest they can make sure you are burned.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 is here, and things are going off.

Last weekend, before things truly became COVID-crazy, the venue I work in hosted a literary event which featured the writer Tanya Tagaq doing a reading/performance.

I was unaware of the work of Tagaq before this event, but as the organisers set up a little table to sell books and branded t-shirts (which I think nobody bought) I slunk over the peruse the blurb of the two books they had on sale. I don’t remember what the other one was, but it didn’t sound as interesting as Split Tooth, which I made sure to buy before the big stack of box fresh novels were stuck back into their Penguin Random House branded boxes.

I read the book soon after purchasing it, and I’m glad I did. It is a deeply evocative novel about indigenous lives – and in particular adolescence – set in the far northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, in the 1970s. Using a combination of prose and poetry (the kind of textual playfulness that I love), it bounces between vivid descriptions of teenage life in a time and place very different from the Middle England of my own adolescence, intense dream sequences (often involving manifestations of the Northern Lights and the frozen landscape as sentient beings) and graphics passages detailing child sexual abuse. As you can probably imagine, this is disconcerting and affecting.

It’s not for me to guess or presume the intentions of a writer, but I felt like the way Tagaq was making me feel was how she had intended to make her readers feel: overwhelmed but hopeful; hopeful but terrified.

Nunavut, as described by Tagaq, is beautiful. The history of the indigenous peoples of this part of Canada, too, is one of resilience not only to the landscape but to colonial oppression, too.

The novel is set amongst the repercussions of the residential schools programme, at a time when children and young adults are forcibly denied an awareness of their cultural history, where languages are dying and where addiction and alcoholism and substance abuse are socially tolerated; where cycles of abuse are maintained without being questioned.

Nunavut is a hard place to live because of the climate, but the cycles of the seasons and the patterns of the aurora borealis and the routines and processes of centuries of human adaptation mean that it is a liveable place, but things become, have become, had become, continue to become, harder due to the exterior demands of colonial governments.

Split Tooth is moving and funny; it is bleak and sad but it is joyful and optimistic. The arctic is dangerous but seductive; intoxication is dangerous but seductive; sex is dangerous but seductive; family is no safer than strangers, and sometimes family are the most dangerous people of all. There are opportunities for revenge and recompense, but too often cruelty repeats onto fresh victims, rather than back towards its perpetrator.

There is no happy ending here, though there are as many happy moments within the text as there are sad ones.

I feel like I’m evidencing my discomfort at writing about this novel, though I worry I’m not.

I have no idea what it feels like to live the lives described in Split Tooth.

Only in the last fifteen months have I lived in a city whose winters are so cold that you’d likely freeze to death if you fell asleep on a bench overnight. And Nunavut is a whole lot colder than the comparatively balmy (and literally so in Summer) Toronto.

The cold is ever-present in Split Tooth, the Arctic, too, and though maybe I shouldn’t be trying to rephrase Tagaq’s work into my own blunt, ignorant, language, I definitely feel like Split Tooth is a novel worth me reading.

I continue to read texts by indigenous writers here in Canada, but this is the first one that has come from the far North. It’s a fascinating, different, place, and I should learn more about it.

A powerful, short, novel that I would recommend. It made me cry.

Split Tooth isn’t from an indie press so I won’t link you to an online store. If you want a copy, order it via your favourite independent bookstore. If you don’t have one, get one.


Download my weird live album via Bandcamp.

Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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