For a book that runs barely more than 200 pages, and is constructed of chapters seldom longer than a page or two, Just Beneath My Skin manages to compress a lot of big themes into a relatively short space – themes like love, loss, family, death, God, wasted lives, and violence.
Darren Greer’s third novel alternates between two narrators. The first is Jake McNeil, a young man who fled to Halifax from North River, a desolate, impoverished maritime town where his father is a minister, but not before befriending a group of lowlifes and fathering a child with a shrewish, abusive drunk. Consumed by guilt over abandoning his son, Jake returns to North River with the intention of spiriting the boy away to the relative safety of Halifax.
The other chapters are narrated by Nathan, the child in question, now eight years old. In Nathan’s voice, Greer perfectly captures a tone of combined innocence and resignation, and the sense of powerlessness that engulfs abused children.
Interwoven into the present-day storyline are Jake’s memories about his straight-talking, hard-working grandfather, his mother’s death from cancer, and his young sister’s death by drowning. In the present, Jake’s father is still above ground, but retains little interest in any life beyond his clerical duties. Returning to North River also forces Jake to face up to the prospect of encountering the friends he left behind, whose dead-end lives fill them with resentment that threatens to tip over into violent rage.
Just Beneath My Skin is not an easy read, but it acutely captures small-town inertia and desperation. The novel’s intimacy, honesty, and humanity make it impossible to resist. Readers will find themselves cheering for the unlikely father and son duo, and anxious about the circumstances standing between the violence, poverty, and pain of North River and the freedom of a new beginning in Halifax. Greer creates characters with the power to get beneath the reader’s skin and remain lodged in memory.