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Deerskin Mass Market Paperback – July 1, 1994
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GENERAL SPOILERS AHEAD:
The first half of the book is really about the traumatic aftermath of a violent assault and rape by the heroine's own father. These dark themes are handled appropriately, realistically, and with great compassion but they do make for some hard reading. If you have any experience with trauma and/or assault, you'll likely recognise a lot of the ordeals and emotions that our heroine processes. There's a lot of darkness in this book and, though beautifully written, absolutely not for the faint of heart (or young readers).
Throughout her suffering, our heroine is supported by her loyal sighthound; her only true friend and family in the world. Possibly a windhund, or long haired whippet, based on the description, though various covers for this book have shown a greyhound and borzoi, respectfully. Either way, if you have ever had the privilege of living with a sighthound, you will recognise so much of their loyalty, grace, and sweetness in this book. Lissar's connection to her canine companion is a huge part of what attracted me to this book, and kept me reading through the painful passages.
The last half of the book is about Lissar healing and joining the world again. Of course, dogs are a huge part of this process; bridging the gap between herself and a young prince who loves and understands dogs almost as much as she does. Her peace is threatened with the return of her father, and the realisation that he might soon hurt another young girl like he once hurt her. This spurs Lissar to face her demons and pull on the strength that was always within her. I honestly found her rising up in protest so powerful; her spirit just burns with the need to protect those who come after her.
The ending is hopeful but makes no foolish promises. Lissar, like all survivors, is forever changed by her trauma but she is also solely in control of her own destiny. As readers, we are left with a heroine who has been through hell and back to come through scarred, but standing, on the other side. Life likely holds moments of pain as her previous trauma is triggered but it is also full of hope; hope that she can be whole, hope that she will continue to live (not just survive), and hope that she will one day be able to trust another with her whole self (and heart).
Even though parts of this book almost physically hurt to read ( I cried a LOT; have tissues at the ready!), it has that soulful, almost nourishing, quality that so many of McKinley's books convey. She is a supremely gifted writer, and reading this book was a privilege. I highly recommend it to those who want something beautiful and complex to read.
The prose of this novel reads almost like a forced fairy tale, which was one of the reasons why I had such a difficult time breezing through. The premise of the novel is very dark and when I read the summary I thought I would be in for an engrossing read. The killer of this novel is the prose, which often leaves the reader feeling disconnected with the characters they are reading about. I read another review that stated the prose is very much telling versus showing, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Had there been more showing, I feel I could have connected more with Lissar and her tragic circumstances.
Pacing is also a major issue. It seems to take forever for the plot to get anywhere. The first 20% of the novel follows Lissar's Mother and Father, which I don't know if it was really necessary for the reader to see in order to get the crap Lissar goes through later with her family. Perhaps, had Lissar herself been more in those scenes, it might have felt more worth reading. The next 60% of the novel is pretty much Lissar's sad journey from neglected, abused daughter to rape victim to wandering girl surviving the circumstances thrown her way. The next 10% of the novel is some introduction to the romance element of this story. Personally, I felt it fell a bit short. Yes, Ossin was her love by the end, but the actual time she spent with the faraway prince was very minimal. She's usually often seen more taking care of his dogs than actually spending any time with him. Or the time they do spend together is inferred through dialogue, so you as a reader don't get to see the full scope of those moments they started from ward and Master to friends, to something more. When he does declare his love, we have yet another 5% of the novel of Lissar by herself, journeying, etc. The last 5% is a mixture of the story's closure of Lissar's journey and her choice of continuing her lonely life or reuniting with her prince.
This novel has not made me a Robin McKinley fan. After reading it, I vaguely recalled that I had read one other of her books many years ago. It was a re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, and I recalled I had much the same feelings about that book as I do about this one. The writing style is just not my favorite. I don't feel swept away to another world, and in the case of Deerskin, if you are in a romantic mood, you will not get your fix with this novel, you will be left wanting.
Much has been made of ‘Deerskin’ being too dark and not suitable for younger kids, and I would advise parents to judge this – and their childrens' reading maturity – for themselves. It is dark, especially in the scenes between Lissar and her evil father, but she is such an irrepressible heroine that I think most teens will love her. And the love between Lissar and her dog Ash, and later between her, Ash, and the puppies she nurtures from near-certain death, more than makes up for the dark stuff.
Is ‘Deerskin’ for everyone? No. But if you go in with an open mind, and read the book’s plot summary first, you will be rewarded with an enchanting, lyrical read.