I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: A Yearbook of Forgotten Words by Paul Anthony Jones, which will be published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday, October 19th.
I started reading these delightful daily doses of etymology last week, and plan to keep the book at my bedside for the whole of the year to come. By happy coincidence, today is also my birthday, so (if I may so flatter myself) in joint honor of the occasion plus the book’s impending publication, Elliott & Thompson have kindly offered a giveaway copy to one UK-based reader.
Enjoy today’s entry, and leave a comment if you’d like to be in the running for the giveaway. I will choose the winner at random at the end of Saturday the 21st and notify them via e-mail.
Parthian (adj.) describing or akin to a shot fired while in retreat
The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. Exhausted and depleted from fighting the Battle of Stamford Bridge just nineteen days earlier, the English King Harold’s forces were eventually overcome by those of the invading Norman King William when they began to implement an ingenious and effective tactic. Reportedly, William’s troops pretended to flee from the battle in panic, and as their English attackers pursued them, the Normans suddenly turned back and resumed fighting.
The Normans and their allies, observing that they could not overcome an enemy which was so numerous and so solidly drawn up, without severe losses, retreated, simulating flight as a trick . . . Suddenly the Normans reined in their horses, intercepted and surrounded [the English] and killed them to the last man.
William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi (c.1071)
The Normans weren’t the first to use such a tactic; fighters in ancient Parthia, a region of northeast Iran, were known to continue firing arrows at their enemies while retreating from the battlefield. The ploy proved so effective that the adjective Parthian ultimately came to be used of any shot or attack employed while in retreat, or in the dying moments of an engagement. In that sense, the word first appeared in English in the mid seventeenth century, but while the technique they employed remained familiar, the Parthians themselves did not. Ultimately, the word Parthian became corrupted, and steadily drifted closer to a much more familiar term – so that today this kind of last-minute attack or sally is typically known as a parting shot.
See below for details of where other reviews and features will be appearing soon.
The Floating Theatre, Martha Conway’s fourth novel, opens with a bang – literally. April 1838: twenty-two-year-old seamstress May Bedloe and her cousin, the actress Comfort Vertue, are on the St. Louis-bound steamboat Moselle when its boilers explode (a real-life disaster) and they must evacuate posthaste. Afterwards Comfort accepts a new role giving abolitionist speeches; May takes her sewing skills on board Captain Hugo Cushing’s Floating Theatre, where she will be a Jill of all trades: repairing costumes, printing tickets, publicizing the show in towns along the Ohio River where they moor for performances, and so on.
Conway gives a vivid sense of nineteenth-century theater life, both off-stage and on-, including just the right amount of historical detail so you can picture everything that’s going on. May is a delightfully no-nonsense narrator – she’d probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s nowadays for her literal approach and her initial inability to lie – and she’s supported by a wonderfully Dickensian cast of actors and crew members. The gripping plot takes on a serious dimension as May, too, gets drawn into the abolition movement: soon she’s helping to deliver runaway slaves from one side of the river to freedom on the other.
In America this was published as The Underground River, more clearly advertising its Underground Railroad theme. As it happens, I prefer this to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a novel to which it will inevitably be compared. (For one thing, Conway has a much more nuanced slave catcher character.) This is terrific historical fiction I can heartily recommend.
The Floating Theatre was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on June 15th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.
An exclusive extract from The Floating Theatre:
Two figures were standing on the lower deck at the stern of the boat. One of them might have been Hugo, but as I got closer I saw that the other one was certainly not Helena—it was Thaddeus Mason, eating popcorn from a red-and-white striped bag.
“What ho, May!” Thaddeus called out when he saw me, as if he were practicing for a nautical part. I noticed he no longer wore his arm in a sling. The other man turned as I came up the gangplank; like Thaddeus, he wore his hair long, but his coloring was darker and he was half a head taller. There was a band of black crepe around his straw hat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up past his elbows. Thaddeus introduced me.
“Captain Hugo Cushing,” the man said in a British accent, touching his hat.
“May and I were on the Moselle together,” Thaddeus told him—was that to be his introduction for me from now on? But he went on to say that Hugo’s sister Helena had been on the Moselle, too. “Do you remember the singer at dinner? Helena Cushing, of Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre?” Thaddeus took off his hat. “Sadly, she was not as fortunate as we were.”
I looked at Hugo and tried to think of something kind to say. I remembered the singer in her pink dress with the light shining behind her.
“The captain let her on to perform,” Hugo said. “We often made a few extra dollars this way. She was going to get off at the stop after Fulton. I was just pushing off to meet up with her there when the sky broke up with the explosion.”
“Oh,” I said. “That is—that’s very bad…” I trailed off awkwardly, but Thaddeus came in with a string of platitudes, which he spoke with great conviction and aplomb—a terrible disaster, an immense misfortune, the captain was a dastardly fellow.
“Where do you go?” I asked Hugo when Thaddeus finished. “Or do you stay here?”
He looked at me blankly.
“On this boat. Your theatre. Where do you perform?”
“Oh, well then, down along the Ohio, of course. We dock at a different town every day, put on a show, and then the next morning pull up and head for the next town. We go all the way to the Mississippi playing towns until the weather turns. Then we get pushed back up the river—I hire a steamer.” I could see that his boat, a flatboat, had no steam power of its own. “Fourth year at it,” he told me. “My sister and I put it all together. But now…” He made a gesture which I took to understand that for him, like me, his old partnership was over.
“And if that weren’t enough, his boat was damaged by the explosion,” Thaddeus added. “The captain was just telling me. Part of the Moselle’s paddle box shot in like a cannonball.”
“Even worse, my leather boat pump got punctured,” Hugo said. “Don’t know how I’m going to fix it, and a new one costs twenty dollars more than I have.”
“How much does a new one cost?” I asked.
He looked at me as if I were a fool. “Twenty dollars.”
“Where is your company?” Thaddeus asked him. “Maybe you could take up a collection.”
“They skittered off into town. Probably drinking their way into even more uselessness. Damn actors. Excuse me,” he said, but I wasn’t sure he meant the apology for me since he was looking out at the river. I wasn’t offended in any case. I had seen actors humiliate themselves in a variety of ways over the years.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for The Floating Theatre. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared.
Ed Yong is a London-based science writer for The Atlantic and is part of National Geographic’s blogging network. I had trouble believing that I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes within Us and a Grander View of Life is his first book; it’s so fluent and engaging that it immediately draws you into the microbial world and keeps you marveling at its strange yet fascinating workings. Yong writes like a journalist rather than a scientist, and that’s a good thing: with an eye to the average reader, he uses a variety of examples and metaphors, intersperses personal anecdotes of visiting researchers at their labs or in the field, and is careful to recap important facts in a lucid way.
The book opens with a visit to San Diego Zoo (see the exclusive extract following my review), where we meet Baba the pangolin. But “Baba is not just a pangolin. He is also a teeming mass of microbes,” Yong explains. “Some of them live inside him, mostly in his gut. Others live on the surface of his face, belly, paws, claws, and scales.” Believe it or not, but we are roughly half and half human cells and microbial cells, making each of us – like all creatures – more of an ecosystem (another term is “holobiont”) than a single entity.
Microbes vary between species but also within species, so each individual’s microbiome in some ways reflects a unique mixture of genes and experiences. This is why people’s underarms smell subtly different, and how hyenas use their scent glands to convey messages. The microbiome may well be tailored to different creatures’ functions, so researchers at San Diego Zoo are testing swabs from their animals to see if there could be discernible signatures for burrowing or flying activities, or for disease. I was struck by the breadth of species considered here: not just mammals, but also invertebrates like beetles, cicadas, and squid – my entomologist husband would surely be proud. The “Us” in the subtitle is thus used very inclusively to speak of the way that microbes live in symbiosis with all living things.
If I were to boil down Yong’s book to one message, it’s that microbes are not simply “bad” or “good” but have different roles depending on the context and the host. You can hardly dismiss all bacteria as germs that must be eradicated when there are thousands of benign species in your gut (versus fewer than 100 kinds that cause infectious diseases). If it weren’t for the microbes passed on to us at birth, we wouldn’t be able to digest the complex sugars in our mothers’ milk. Other creatures rely on bacteria to help them develop to adulthood, like the tube worms that thrive on Navy ship hulls at Pearl Harbor.
Yet Yong feels too little attention is given to beneficial microbes, and in many cases we continue the campaign to rid ourselves of them through overuse of antibiotics and taking cleanliness to unhelpful extremes. “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that’s hostile to the ones we need,” he asserts.
The book is full of lines like that one that combine a nice turn of phrase and a clever literary allusion. In the title alone, after all, you have references to Walt Whitman (“I contain multitudes” is from his “Song of Myself”) and Charles Darwin (“there is grandeur in this view of life” is part of the closing sentence in his On the Origin of Species). Yong also sets up helpful analogies, comparing the immune system to a thermostat and antibiotics to “shock-and-awe weapons … like nuking a city to deal with a rat.”
History and future are also brought together very effectively, with the narrative looking backwards to Leeuwenhoek’s early microscope work and Pasteur and Koch’s germ theory, but also forwards to the prospects that current research into microbes might enable: eliminating elephantiasis, protecting frogs from deadly fungi via probiotics in the soil, fecal microbiota transplants to cure C. diff infections, and so on.
The possibilities seem endless, and this is a book that will keep you shaking your head in amazement. I’d liken Yong’s style to David Quammen’s or Rebecca Skloot’s. His clear and intriguing science writing succeeds in inspiring wonder at the natural world and at the bodies that carry us through it.
With thanks to Joe Pickering at The Bodley Head for the review copy.
An exclusive extract from “PROLOGUE: A TRIP TO THE ZOO”
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
(The Bodley Head)
All of us have an abundant microscopic menagerie, collectively known as the microbiota or microbiome.1 They live on our surface, inside our bodies, and sometimes inside our very cells. The vast majority of them are bacteria, but there are also other tiny organisms including fungi (such as yeasts) and archaea, a mysterious group that we will meet again later. There are viruses too, in unfathomable numbers – a virome that infects all the other microbes and occasionally the host’s cells. We can’t see any of these minuscule specks. But if our own cells were to mysteriously disappear, they would perhaps be detectable as a ghostly microbial shimmer, outlining a now-vanished animal core.2
In some cases, the missing cells would barely be noticeable. Sponges are among the simplest of animals, with static bodies never more than a few cells thick, and they are also home to a thriving microbiome.3 Sometimes, if you look at a sponge under a microscope, you will barely be able to see the animal for the microbes that cover it. The even simpler placozoans are little more than oozing mats of cells; they look like amoebae but they are animals like us, and they also have microbial partners. Ants live in colonies that can number in their millions, but every single ant is a colony unto itself. A polar bear, trundling solo through the Arctic, with nothing but ice in all directions, is completely surrounded. Bar-headed geese carry microbes over the Himalayas, while elephant seals take them into the deepest oceans. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, they were also taking giant steps for microbe-kind.
When Orson Welles said ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right’– a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.
In this book, I use the terms ‘microbiota’ and ‘microbiome’ interchangeably. Some scientists will argue that microbiota means the organisms themselves, while microbiome refers to their collective genes. But one of the very first uses of microbiome, back in 1988, used the term to talk about a group of microbes living in a given place. That definition persists today – it emphasises the ‘biome’ bit, which refers to a community, rather than the ‘ome’ best, which refers to the world of genomes.
This imagery was first used by the ecologist Clair Folsome (Folsome, 1985).
Sponges: Thacker and Freeman, 2012; placozoans: personal communication from Nicole Dubilier and Margaret McFall-Ngai.
My gut feeling: This book is a fine example of popular science writing, and has much to teach us about the everyday workings of our bodies. It’s one of my three favorites from the shortlist.
Andrew G. Marshall is the author of 18 self-help books about relationships. He has written for newspapers, appeared on television and radio programs, and worked as a marriage therapist. However, he has shared little about his own experience of relationships until now. Twenty years have passed since the death of his long-term partner, Thomas Hartwig. Sharing this diary of Thom’s death with several friends and family members who’d suffered recent bereavements seemed to help, so he’s hoping that in book form it can be of wider benefit to those who are in the midst of grief.
Marshall met Thom, then the headmaster of a German language school, on a holiday to Spain in September 1989. They alternated between Germany and England every other weekend for years, and in 1995 Thom finally relocated to join Marshall near Brighton. Thom had plans to start an interior design business, but fell ill just six months later. By early 1997, he had a diagnosis of liver failure and was given weeks to live. They traveled to Germany to get Thom a second opinion and, despite his resolution to die back in England, he breathed his last at the German hospital on March 9th, aged 43.
The above constitutes a brief Part One, while the rest of the book recounts the first full year after Thom’s death. Marshall tracks the changes in several areas of his life:
Family Life: “People become counselors to make sense of their difficult families, and of course I am no exception,” Marshall notes. He grew up in a conservative middle-class family in Bedford and didn’t come out until he was nearly 30. Hugely disappointed that his parents and sister didn’t make it to Thom’s memorial service, Marshall moves from not talking to his family at all to making tentative overtures of reconciliation. There’s a particularly touching scene where he confronts his parents about the way they repressed emotion while he was growing up and hears the words “I love you” from his father for the first time.
Career: For part of his mourning year, Marshall worked on the Agony television program as an “agony uncle.” He took a break from Relate counseling, but continued to write freelance articles, many of them touching on illness and death, and contributed a “Revelations” celebrity profile column to the Independent, in which he interviewed authors and pop stars about life’s turning points. Two of my favorite moments in the book arise from this: Jim Crace (promoting Quarantine) tells how he realized the emptiness of atheism when burying his father; and Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party provides Marshall’s gateway into literary fiction, which he’d never attempted before.
Home Life: “There is something terribly sad about the clutter we accumulate,” Marshall sighs. “I was loved and I did love, but now all I had was this debris.” Thom moved to England with 87 packing cases; even at the hospital in Germany there were two bags of stuff to look through. Back in England, though Marshall tries to navigate around “Thom-shaped holes” in his life, especially near holidays, he realizes this relationship hasn’t ended: he kisses his lover’s ashes goodnight, and heeds Thom’s late advice to replace the vacuum cleaner. Meanwhile he goes on short vacations, sees friends, dogsits, and even tries counseling – but finds it’s “like watching a conjurer saw a lady in half, but knowing how he does it.”
Spirituality: Marshall has several experiences he has trouble explaining. For instance, at certain points he smells vanilla all around him and chooses to take it as a sign of Thom’s enduring presence – a trace of the vanilla candle that burned beside his deathbed. He also has some psychic messages conveyed, by both friends and strangers, and attends a spiritualist service. But it is an interview with forensics expert Kathy Reichs that helps him to once and for all detach the idea of Thom’s dead body from that of his spirit.
Self-Expression: Writing the “Revelations” column and this diary proved better therapy for Marshall than traditional counseling sessions. Towards the end of this book he also takes an introduction to playwriting course, and in the intervening years several of the plays he has written have been performed around the UK.
Love: After Thom’s death, Marshall was desperate for physical comfort, and temporarily found it with Peter, whom he met at a gay sauna. I admired Marshall’s honesty about this fling; it must have been tempting to excise it from the record to make himself look better. But their relationship never went beyond a few dates. This sad story has a happy coda, though: In 2001 Marshall met Ignacio, who became his civil partner in 2008 and his husband in 2015.
I’ve read many bereavement memoirs, but the diary format makes this one a unique blend of momentous occasions – Princess Diana’s funeral and the preparations for a catered dinner party on the anniversary of Thom’s death – and the challenges of everyday life. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who has experienced or is currently enduring bereavement; it will be reassuring to read about the flux in Marshall’s emotions and see an example of how to rebuild after loss.
Perhaps this is the reality of mourning: you never get over the loss but reassemble the daily minutiae into a new life. At the beginning it feels like a box of flat-pack furniture with the instructions in Swedish, but finally you discover that tab A can slide into slot B. Eventually you own something quite functional – even though there are always a few screws left over and it never looks as good as it does in the catalogue.
Whether the clairvoyants are correct and Thom has become my guardian spirit is not important[;] he is always with me. I have integrated his personality into mine and in that way he lives on through me.
Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.
The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”
Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.
The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.
I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt this book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.
This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it will likely be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.
Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
“[B]eing an adoptive parent is like parenting in Technicolor: everything is just a little more intense. This means the highs can be really high, but it also means that the lows are going to be really low. You have to prepare yourself.”
~Sharon Roszia, quoted in A Book about Love, by Jonah Lehrer
Two Voices, One Story is a mother–daughter memoir that splits narration duties between Elaine Rizzo and Amy Masters, the now-teenage daughter she adopted from China in 1999. Elaine’s sections provide the main thread of their story, while Amy’s passages, generally shorter and printed in italics, chime in to give her perspective on various events and relationships that have been important in her life.
Elaine is forthright about her infertility and the miscarriage that led to her decision to adopt. In the late 1990s, China’s one-child policy was still in place, but it was the severe flooding of the Yangtze River that led directly to Amy’s adoption. Thousands died and millions more were displaced. Given the context, it’s not so surprising that baby Amy was left outside a welfare center. She was given the Chinese name Tong Fang – “Copper Child.”
For me the highlight of the book was Elaine and Lee’s trip to China to pick up Amy. Although they were nervous and disoriented, they experienced the kindness of strangers and responded with compassion of their own, taking along extra toiletries and clothes of different sizes and leaving the surplus with the care center. Amy had bronchitis, one more worry on top of all the paperwork and red tape they had to go through to finalize the adoption.
Back in England, Amy had some behavioral problems that were likely vestiges of her time at the orphanage. She hated noise, especially thunderstorms; she hit herself and others; and she often woke up screaming. Private schooling ensured she wouldn’t get left behind, and there were many happy times with extended family and holidays to Australia and the west coast of Wales, where Elaine and Amy would later settle with Elaine’s second husband.
But life wasn’t always rosy: Amy was strong-willed and uncooperative – perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for a teenager, but still a challenge for her parents. Elaine recalls a social worker telling them “that very often adoptive parents don’t feel like they have the right to tell their child off, or that they think they shouldn’t say or do anything which might upset the child, because they are trying to compensate for what has happened prior to the adoption.”
Lengthy commuting to her job back in England and years-long house renovations demanded much of Elaine’s attention, yet she remained alert to what was going on with Amy. Unfortunately, in her teen years Amy experienced racism from a few schoolmates, including abusive Facebook messages that drove the family to contact the police. Amy herself, though, always comes across as easygoing about being different: “Every Christmas we used to do a Nativity show and I remember being an angel first and then one of the kings, which I suppose was the right role for me because I really do come from the East.”
Even though this is a very quick read, my interest waxed and waned. The telling can be clichéd and sentimental, and I felt too much space was given to banal details that added little to an understanding of the central mother–daughter relationship. This self-published book has a very appealing cover but needs another look from an experienced editor who could fix the fairly frequent typos and punctuation issues and cut out the bullet points (nine pages’ worth) and speech tics like “I will also say…” and “I have to comment…”
I would certainly recommend this book to those who have a personal experience of or interest in adoption, particularly from overseas (for a fictional take on adoption from China, you might also try The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, The Red Thread by Ann Hood, and This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell), as well as to anyone wondering how to parent or educate a child who is in some way different.
I’ll end with some lovely words from Amy:
when my Chinese mum left me outside the gates of the welfare center almost eighteen years ago now, because there was nothing left for me in Tongling, she must have had the desperate hope that I would find a happy life with people who loved me. I can only say that her wish did come true.
Two Voices, One Story will be published by Clink Street Publishing on March 21st. Thanks to Rachel Gilbey of Authoright Marketing & Publicity for arranging my free copy for review.
I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for Two Voices, One Story. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
“Maybe we can see that the animals are like us, or we are like animals.”
Laura Kaye’s impressive debut novel, English Animals, is a fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging. It has particular resonance in the wake of Brexit, showing the apparent lack of a cohesive English identity in spite of sometimes knee-jerk nationalism.
The novel takes place within roughly a year and is narrated by Mirka Komárova, a 19-year-old Slovakian who left home suddenly after an argument with her parents and arrives in the English countryside to work for thirty-somethings Richard and Sophie Parker. She doesn’t know what to expect from her new employers: “Richard and Sophie sounded like good names for good people. But they could be anything, they could be completely crazy.”
It’s a live-in governess-type arrangement, and yet there are no children – Mirka later learns that Sophie is having trouble getting pregnant. Instead Mirka drives the volatile Parkers to the pub so they can get drunk whenever they want, and also helps with their various money-making ventures: cooking and cleaning for B&B guests and the summer’s wedding parties, serving as a beater for pheasant shoots, and assisting with Richard’s taxidermy business. Her relationship with them remains uncertain: she’s not a servant but not quite an equal either; it’s a careful friendship powered by jokes with Richard and cryptic crossword clues with Sophie.
At first Mirka seems disgusted by Sophie’s shabby family home and the many animals around the place, both living and dead. Initially squeamish about skinning animal corpses, she gets used to it as taxidermy becomes her artistic expression. Taking inspiration from whimsical Victorian portraits of dead animals in costume, she makes intricate modern tableaux with names like Mice Raving, Freelance Squirrels and Rats at the Office Party. When her art catches the eye of a London agent, she starts preparing her pieces for an exhibit and is the subject of a magazine profile. The interviewer writes this about her:
Mirka is someone who understands the philosophical nature of her art. How, in our strange condition of being simultaneously within and outside the animal kingdom, we invest taxidermy with our longing for permanence.
I loved the level of detail about Mirka’s work – it’s rare to encounter such a precise account of handiwork in fiction, as opposed to in nonfiction like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and David Esterly’s The Lost Carving; Kaye herself is a potter, which might explain it – and I appreciated the many meanings that dead animals take on in the novel. They’re by turns food, art objects and sacrificial victims. Taxidermy is a perfect juxtaposition of physicality and the higher echelons of art, a canny way of blending death and beauty.
But of course the human residents of this community also fall into the title’s category: Many of them are what you might call ‘beastly’, and the threat of violence is never far away given Richard and Sophie’s argumentativeness. A promiscuous blonde, Sophie reminded me of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, so often described as careless: “You are a dangerous person, Sophie,” Mirka says. “Don’t say that. I didn’t mean to hurt anything.” Mirka replies, “You don’t care about other things. Everything is a game. Everyone is a toy for you to play with.”
The two different blurbs I’ve seen for the book both give too much away, so I will simply say that there’s an air of sexual tension and latent hostility surrounding this semi-isolated home, and it’s intriguing to watch the dynamic shift between Richard, Sophie and Mirka. I felt that I never quite knew what would happen or how far Kaye would take things.
I did have a few minor misgivings, though: sometimes Mirka’s narration reads like a stilted translation into English, rather than a fluent outpouring; there’s a bit too much domestic detail and heavy-handed symbolism; and the themes of xenophobia and homophobia might have been introduced more subtly, rather than using certain characters as overt mouthpieces.
All the same, I read this with great interest and curiosity throughout. It’s a powerful look at assumptions versus reality, how we approach the Other, and the great effort it takes to change; it’s easier to remain trapped in the roles we’ve acquired. I’d recommend this to readers of Polly Samson, Francesca Segal and even Rachel Johnson (the satire Shire Hell). In particular, I was reminded of Shelter by Jung Yun and Little Children by Tom Perrotta: though suburban in setting, they share Kaye’s preoccupations with sex and violence and the ways we try to hide our true selves beneath a façade of conformity.
This is one of the most striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years; it’s left me eager to see what Laura Kaye will do next.
English Animals was published by Little, Brown UK on January 12th. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the review copy.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for English Animals. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.