Be­neath the skin

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Call it a Dif­fi­cult Night by Mishka Hoosen Deep South Pub­lish­ing (UKZN Press) 160 pages R120

Some time last year af­ter I suf­fered an over­whelm­ing dis­ap­point­ment, the world be­gan to over­flow. It for­got to keep to its neatly de­fined boxes – one realm leak­ing into the other. There were voices build­ing them­selves into shad­ows in the cor­ner of my room. A lit­tle girl in white dress, wear­ing a crown of pa­per hu­mans on her Afro. And ev­ery­thing spoke loudly, even the si­lences. And ev­ery­thing was full and alive, es­pe­cially the empti­ness. The world be­gan to blur its edges, and all lines be­came smudged. And cos­mos and chro­mo­some, chimera and chronol­ogy were one. And all I had were my words, but they did not trust me with them. So the world over­flowed and my veins ex­ploded, and ev­ery­thing was awash with blood within.

“On the un­der­side of the skin we are so much red­ness and rich­ness.”

Th­ese are the words of the nar­ra­tor in Mishka Hoosen’s de­but novel, Call it a Dif­fi­cult Night. It re­minded me of this time in my life. Hoosen’s nar­ra­tor re­mains un­named, but never un­known. She in­vites us un­der her skin as she bat­tles with an ill­ness – schizophre­nia? – that might not be.

She counts down the sec­onds left in her life, liv­ing as though she had no skin, leav­ing blood stains in the beds of lovers, on blan­kets in the snow, on ster­ile white sheets in men­tal in­sti­tu­tions.

We meet her when she’s meet­ing a lit­tle girl who no one can see but her. She at­tempts to crown this girl with a ring of flow­ers, but the halo falls to the floor. She in­vites the child into her home and of­fers her a saucer of honey. “I’d heard some­where that honey was the food of other worlds as well. The sun streamed over the wood and pooled in front of her, leaf shadow mov­ing over her. It was hard keep­ing her in fo­cus. She moved un­der the skin of things.”

The book is pep­pered with the idea of skin and the things un­der­neath it. Skin as a mem­brane, por­ous and thin. “You draw the blade across your arm again and again till you think it’s deep enough. You light a match, hold the knife to it. Soot spreads along the bright blade and mars it. You push the hot blade be­tween the parted ridges of skin. Blood streams.”

Skin is a con­duit for tac­tile com­mu­ni­ca­tion but also for the block­age in the synapses. Skin is the bar­rier and the por­tal. “Long ago they might have said it was God we heard. Long ago they would have said we have seen the next place, the ghost world. What a long way, and now the glass. And then the skin. We are all such strangers to each other.”

Skin and blan­ket sheet­ing, worlds un­der­neath it, things that crawl and rub up against each other. Things that scream and make you scream. “She moved un­der the skin of things.” And through this brave, naked mis­sive, we move with Hoosen.

Call it a Dif­fi­cult Night is a jig­saw of po­etry, prose, magic and re­al­ism linked to­gether by a des­per­a­tion to touch and be touched with­out skin, to speak with­out lan­guage, to in­vent a new one.

It is sen­ti­men­tal and ro­man­tic, but writ­ten with such earnest­ness that it never tum­bles over into the in­sin­cere. Pub­lished by the small, in­de­pen­dent Deep South, it may not re­ceive much at­ten­tion. Yet it de­serves more than I can put here into words.

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