This is my third year of prioritizing novellas for my November reading. I have plenty more on the go that I’ll try to write up as the month progresses. For this first installment I review three each of my recent fiction and nonfiction reads, all of them 150 pages or fewer.
Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922)
I accidentally did things the wrong way round: a few months back I read Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, which includes the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 winner “Mrs Fox,” clearly modeled on Garnett’s half-charming, half-horrible fable. In both, an upper-middle-class marriage is derailed when the wife turns into a fox. Here Mr. Tebrick sends away the servants and retreats from the world to look after Silvia, who grows increasingly feral. To start with the vixen will wear clothing, sleep in a bed, play cards and eat table scraps, but soon she’s hunting birds outdoors. Before long she’s effectively a wild creature, though she still shows affection to Tebrick when he comes to visit her den.
Anyone in a partnership will experience a bittersweet sense of recognition at how Tebrick and Silvia try to accommodate each other’s differences and make compromises to maintain a relationship in defiance of the world’s disapproval and danger. Beware unsentimental animal peril throughout. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
It’s a wonder I never read this Pulitzer winner in high school. Like that other syllabus favorite, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it’s a Great American novella praised for spare prose and weighty symbolism. My two decades’ worth of preconceptions were proven accurate insomuch as this is a gloomy story about the nobility but ultimate futility of human striving. After 84 days without a catch, Santiago returns to the waters off of Havana and finally gets a bite. Even after the harrowing process of reeling in the 18-foot marlin, his struggle isn’t over.
This is my third experience with Hemingway’s fiction; I remain unconvinced. I appreciated some of the old man’s solitary ruminations on purpose and determination – “My big fish must be somewhere,” “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” – though they sound rather like sound bites. And I kept almost falling asleep while reading this (until the sharks showed up), which almost never happens. Take that as you will.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)
It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Her father is a Rochdale-area bus driver, but British prehistory is his all-consuming hobby. They’ll skin rabbits with stone tools and forage for roots and berries. What could be better?! As it turns out, it’s a stifling summer, and the students can’t sneak off to civilization often enough. Mocked for her family’s accent, Silvie is uncomfortably aware of her class. And, always, she must tread carefully to avoid angering her father, who punishes perceived offenses with his belt or his fists.
Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. Though I enjoyed Silvie’s sarcastic voice, I was underwhelmed for much of the book, yet ended up impressed by how much is conveyed in so few pages. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Moss, do so immediately.
Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Lee Austin (2016)
Austin, an Episcopal priest and academic, met his wife Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was his companion for nearly 40 years. Unusually for a cancer story, it wasn’t the beginning of the end when Susan was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 1993; surgery was successful and she lived for another 19 years, but white-matter disease, a side effect of radiation, meant that her brain function was continually diminishing.
The book gives a clear sense of Susan’s personality despite the progression of her illness, and of the challenges of being a caregiver while holding down a career. I enjoyed the details of the human story of coping with suffering, but in overlaying a spiritual significance on it Austin lost me somewhat. “God, who had given us so much, now gave us this evil,” he writes. While once this kind of language would have meant something to me, now it alienates me. I valued this more as a straightforward bereavement memoir than as a theological treatise.
The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel (2017)
“There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents.” Some species-specific natural/cultural histories can be long-winded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just right.
He gives some general information about the family, surveys the native species and occasional visitors, gives tips for telling them apart – I’m going to photograph a page on the difference between the five major species’ pellets for future reference – and shares legends and poems that feature owls (including a jaunty little Tennyson piece that reads like a folk song; I’ll suggest that my husband turn it into one). The black-and-white illustrations by Beci Kelly are charming, too. It’s a shame I missed this when it first came out, but it would still make a great gift for a bird lover this Christmas.
Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary by Kathleen A. Renninger (2013)
These are lovely excerpts from nature sketchbooks Renninger kept between 1987 and 2013. My mother bought the self-published book from the author at a craft fair, and I enjoyed spotting lots of familiar place names from southern central Pennsylvania, where my mother and sister used to live. In the past I’ve unfairly considered the area devoid of natural beauty, but it’s clear from Renninger’s encounters that the wildlife is out there if you’re patient and lucky enough to find it – mostly birds and insects, but even larger mammals like foxes and bears.
Many of her sightings are by chance: near her feeders or clothesline, or while driving past fields or down a residential street. Each month ends with a poem; these are slightly florid, but so earnest that they won me over. There are plentiful punctuation issues and the cursive font is a challenge to read, but the captured moments and the sense of the seasons’ passing make for a sweet book I’d recommend to anyone with a local interest.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
I’m mostly grouping these two debut novels by women authors together for my scheduling convenience, but they do have things in common. For starters, both center on an encounter with another species that determines much of what follows. For another thing, they pivot on the end of one relationship and the potential beginning of another. And in the end they’re about how we retain our humanity in the face of loss – despite the strong temptation to give into madness. Although they are both notable and surprising books, I felt that one was significantly more successful than the other; read on to discover which I favor.
How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza
Thirty-four-year-old Mary Green is adrift after her long-term fiancé, Mark, moves out of their East London home. She works in university HR but hates her job and can never manage to show up to it on time. Though she and Mark broke up in part because she didn’t feel ready to commit to having children, she’s inordinately fond of the next-door neighbors’ baby, Flora. Most of all, she’s trying to reorient herself to the presence of a fox who slips in from the surrounding edgeland to visit her back garden each evening. He leaves presents: boxers, a glove, an egg, and – one disorienting evening – Flora herself, a live bundle on the back steps.
Whereas the neighbors are horrified at the thought of a fox infestation and ready to go on the attack if necessary, Mary is enraptured by this taste of wildness. Before long the novel is using almost erotic vocabulary to describe her encounters with ‘her’ fox; Mary even allows the neighbors and her ex to get the idea that she’s ‘seeing someone’ new. Yet even as Mary’s grasp on reality grows feebler, it’s easy to empathize with her delight at the unexpectedness of interspecies connection: “At the end of her garden she had found a friend. … His wildness was a gift. … He was an escape artist, she thought admiringly. Maybe he could free her too.”
I love this novel for what it has to say about trespass, ownership and belonging. Whose space is this, really, and where do our loyalties lie? Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable. The encounter with the Other is clarifying, even salvific, and allows Mary to finally make her way back to herself. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give the fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream (“Come fresh to stalk around the human Female with sly feet and rippety eyes. Spruckling toadsome”). Memorable lines abound, and a chapter set at the neighbors’ barbecue is brilliant, as are the final three chapters, in which Mary – like James Darke – holes up in her house in anticipation of a siege.
As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about women’s lives: loneliness, choices we make and patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. The character Mary is my near contemporary, so I could relate to her sense of being stuck personally and professionally, and also of feeling damned if you do, damned if you don’t regarding having children. “Some part of her was made for a bigger, wilder, freer life.” One of my favorite books of 2017 so far.
Paula Cocozza is a feature writer for the Guardian. How to Be Human was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 6th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
If you’re in the London area, you may be interested in this animal-themed Faber Social event, also featuring Lucy Jones, author of Foxes Unearthed. I’ll be in America at the time or else I surely would have gone!
Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone
No doubt about it: the cover and title – from W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” – can’t be beat. One day in late March this book showed up on my Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram feeds, and the cover lured me into requesting a copy right away. The elevator pitch is a winner, too: Seb’s artist wife, Leda, was killed by a swan. To be precise, she was boating in a London park and got too close to some cygnets; the parent bird upturned the boat and Leda drowned. The novel is narrated by Seb, an art history professor realizing just how little he knew about the woman he loved. When he takes a break from work to travel to Leda’s native Latvia in search of answers, he even learns that she was known by another name, Leila.
It’s as if Seb is running both towards and away from his sorrow:
What can I do to find some way back to Leda? I seek for meaning in every miserable glint and shadow … I felt I was starting to lose myself as well. Grief is the aggressive displacement of the self from a known universe to another … I want to bury myself neck-deep in the quicksand of grief.
When he gets to Latvia he stays at a guesthouse and communicates with the landlady in Russian. For a week running he meets Leda’s cousin Olaf at his clubhouse each night to drink and play cards, and later bags a boar with Olaf and his hunting buddies. While viewing a fresco in a picturesque church he meets Ursula, who is looking to build an eco-friendly resort to boost the country’s tourism industry. She soon emerges as a potential love interest for Seb.
As best I could make out, this is set roughly a decade ago. Interspersed between Seb’s rather aimless travels are passages from Leda’s diary between 1988 and 2005. These reveal her to have been a lonely, bullied youth who took refuge in art and music. If you’re familiar with the myth of Leda and the Swan, you’ll be expecting the trauma in her past. It’s a shame this has to be spelt out in Leda’s final diary entry; it was sufficiently foreshadowed, I think.
Ultimately I felt this book had a promising setup but didn’t particularly go anywhere. It struck me as an excellent short story idea that got expanded and lost a good bit of its power along the way. This is a shame, as I was initially reminded of several excellent debut novels with Eastern European elements, especially in the excellent opening sequence about how Leda’s various female ancestors perished (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night, and Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia). There could have been a quirky family saga in there had Goldstone chosen to go in that direction.
By the end we’ve learned next to nothing about Seb despite his first-person narration, and little of interest about Leda either. I can see how this is meant to reinforce a central message about the unknowability of other people, even those we think we know best, but it creates distance between reader and narrator. You could easily read this 194-page paperback in an afternoon. If you do and find yourself, like me, a mite dissatisfied, never fear – Goldstone is so young and writes so well; I’m confident she will only improve in the years to come.
Eli Goldstone has a City University Creative Writing MA. Strange Heart Beating is published in the UK by Granta today, May 4th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)
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 the 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 may 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.
To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:
- Glow by Ned Beauman
- The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
- Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
- The Soho Leopard by Ruth Padel (a poetry book with a sequence on urban foxes)
& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).
“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.