Book Review: Skunks by Fiona Warnick

May 7, 2024

In Fiona Warnick’s debut novel, The Skunks, Isabel spends a summer in the gray, biding time between college and the next stage of her life. She’s back in her hometown after graduation but remains on the periphery of her childhood experience of home: She spends the summer housesitting for one family while babysitting for another and works part time at a Pilates studio reception desk though she does not do Pilates. She takes walks with her childhood best friend, Ellie, and has infrequent sightings of Eli, the son of the couple she housesits for and with whom she has a past. She takes Cecelia, the girl she babysits, on nature hikes, and plays piano for an aging pianist, Judy, when Ellie can’t attend. These encounters are detailed in careful prose by Warnick who develops the protagonist as a keen observer, self-aware but gently so as she shares observations on life and death, feminism, beauty, and the cycles of nature.

Isabel is someone who lives life in anticipation of what comes next, aware of death but not yet in its creeping shadow; early in the novel, there’s her knowledge of an empty shoebox in the freezer left by the house owners in case their aging cat doesn’t make it through the summer, one of the first things Isabel shares with the reader. She says of Ellie, “[S]ometimes I looked at her… and imagined how beautiful she’d be with gray hair.” Isabel notices Roger, the only man who teaches at the Pilates studio, is popular with the students. When she shares her observation with him, he responds that “women of a certain age just want someone to talk to, sometimes.”  Isabel realizes, by contrast, she and Judy “could talk with impunity because we were too young and too old. Also because we were talking to each other instead of to a man.”

Isabel sees a family of skunks in the yard of the house she stays in for the summer: three siblings, she thinks. The skunks are a recurring image throughout the novel, specifically the skunk perceived to be the eldest sibling, an elusive animal she hopes to spot again and whose adventures parallel her own. Much like with Eli, Isabel realizes the skunks are around but appear just outside of her route and will require her own intervention if their paths are to intersect again.

The first-person chapters from Isabel’s point of view alternate with shorter chapters from the eldest skunk’s third-person point of view. The skunk chapters are poetic with a focus on the natural world that Isabel also at times inhabits, a lyrical treat for the reader. Striking out on her own, the eldest skunk “moved like a little soap bubble, clean and new,”  while her human counterparts navigate the changing landscape of a world heavy with reminders of global warming and the somewhat artificial world of the internet (Ellie arranges a tableau at the coffee shop before taking a perfectly framed photo of the two with their pastries for Instagram before allowing Isabel to eat). Structuring the novel with chapters from the skunk’s point of view, versus just having Isabel tell her view of the skunk’s story or filtering the skunk’s experience through a human lens, allows the skunk speaker to express a level of innocence and curiosity that wouldn’t work as well with a human narrator. After all, Warnick has crafted a protagonist who is young but aware of where she stands with others and with the natural world, and Isabel is never naive. The skunk chapters create a deeper level of connection to the themes of the novel, because the skunk and Isabel are both observers, both travelers who have left home in search of either a different place or a different feeling. Just as the skunk observes the oriole, the grasses, the water, Isabel observes at the Pilates studio where she’s not a participant, decidedly on the outside looking in. In the end, Isabel thinks, “maybe it’s deceitful to pretend we understand the skunks, but is there anything wrong with observing them?”

The novel is also funny. Isabel is a writer, and she says about poetry: “I liked to read poetry by men that was inaccurate. It made me feel more feminist.”  Isabel initially writes letters to Ellie in diary-like fashion and begins a letter to the skunks though she is not sure what to say to them. Initially, I didn’t remember this layer to the novel, that Isabel had written down her observations to share with Ellie and the skunks when they were apart, but I think this speaks to how well-crafted the novel is: The reader feels inside Isabel’s head without use of a confessional device, and this feels natural with the distance removed.

Like Isabel’s return to her hometown, the skunk notes, “Orioles migrate. They believe in forward motion, and the things that happened before happening again.”  After the skunk’s oriole friend leaves, the skunk leaves the yard too because this new loneliness “could only be solved with motion,” and she asks herself, “what was her fortune?”, just as Isabel left her college town after graduation, but returned to a place she’d already been, and it’s a question for the reader whether things happen again or differently. As Isabel deftly observes, “[W]hat made it more acceptable to flounder in a new place than in a place steeped with memories?”  This is the question at the heart of the novel—what propels us to adventure away from home, and what calls us back? Not everything is black and white like the skunks, and Warnick investigates these gray areas with heart.

Publisher: Tin House

Publication date: May 7, 2024

Reviewed by Suzy Eynon


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