“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.
We’ve been back from our European trip for over a week already, but I haven’t been up to writing until now. Partially this is because I’ve had a mild stomach bug that has left me feeling yucky and like I don’t want to spend any more time at a computer than is absolutely necessary for my work; partially it’s because I’ve just been a bit blue. Granted, it’s nice to be back where all the signs and announcements are in English and I don’t have to worry about making myself understood. Still, gloom over Brexit has combined with the usual letdown of coming back from an amazing vacation and resuming normal life to make this a ho-hum sort of week. Nonetheless, I want to get back into the rhythm of blogging and give a quick rundown of the books I read while I was away.
But first, some of the highlights of the trip:
- the grand architecture of the center of Brussels; live jazz emanating from a side street café
- cycling to the zoo in Freiburg with our friends and their kids
- ascending into the mountains by cable car and then on foot to circle Switzerland’s Lake Oeschinensee
- traipsing through meadows of Alpine flowers
- exploring the Engadine Valley of southeast Switzerland, an off-the-beaten track, Romansh-speaking area where the stone buildings are covered in engravings, paintings and sayings
- our one big splurge of the trip (Switzerland is ridiculously expensive; we had to live off of supermarket food): a Swiss dessert buffet followed by a horse carriage ride
- spotting ibex and chamois at Oeschinensee and marmots in the Swiss National Park
- miming “The Hills Are Alive” in fields near our accommodation in Austria (very close to where scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed)
- the sun coming out for our afternoon in Salzburg
- daily coffee and cake in Austrian coffeehouses
- riding the underground and trams of Vienna’s public transport network
- finding famous musicians’ graves in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof cemetery
- discovering tasty vegan food at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Vienna that makes its own noodles
- going to Slovakia for the afternoon on a whim (its capital, Bratislava, is only 1 hour from Vienna by train – why not?!)
We went to such a variety of places and had so many different experiences. Weather and language were hugely variable, too: it rained nine days in a row; some mornings in Switzerland I wore my winter coat and hat; in Bratislava it was 95 °F. Even in the ostensibly German-speaking countries of the trip, we found that greetings and farewells changed everywhere we went (doubly true in the Romansh-speaking Engadine). Most of the time we had no idea what shopkeepers were saying to us. Just smile and nod. It was more difficult at the farm where we stayed in Austria. Thanks to Google Translate, we had no idea that the owner spoke no English; her e-mails were all in unusual but serviceable English. We speak virtually no German, so fellow farm guests, including a Dutch couple, had to translate between us. (The rest of Europe puts us to shame with their knowledge of languages!)
Train travel was, for the most part, easy and stress-free. Especially enjoyable were the small lines through the Engadine, which include the highest regular-service station in Europe (Ospizia Bernina, where we found fresh snowfall). The little town where we stayed in an Airbnb cabin, Lavin, was a request stop on the line, meaning you always had to press a button to get the train to stop and then walk across the tracks (!) to board. Contrary to expectations, we found that nearly all of our European trains were running late. However, they were noticeably more comfortable than British trains, especially the German ones. Thanks to train rides of an hour or more on most days, I ended up getting a ton of reading done.
On the journey out I finished The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. This is the first “classic” Tyler I’ve read, after her three most recent novels, and although I kept being plagued by odd feelings of ‘reverse déjà vu’, I really enjoyed it. This story of staid, reluctant traveler Macon Leary and how his life is turned upside down by a flighty dog trainer is all about the patterns of behavior we get stuck in. Tyler suggests that occasionally journeying into someone else’s unpredictable life might change ours for the good.
Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome was just what I expected: a very silly book about the travails of international travel. It’s much more about the luckless journey and the endurance of national stereotypes than it is about the Passion Play the travelers see once they get to Germany. It was amusing to see the ways in which some things have hardly changed in 125 years.
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a novella set in the Austrian Alps, is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.
The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood releases on August 9th. A new book club helps Ava cope with her divorce, her daughter Maggie’s rebelliousness, and tragic events from her past. Each month one club member picks the book that has mattered most to them in life. I thought the choices were all pretty clichéd and Ava was unrealistically passive. Although what happens to her in Paris is rather melodramatic, I most enjoyed Maggie’s sections.
Me and Kaminski was my second novel from Daniel Kehlmann. Know-nothing art critic Sebastian Zöllner interviews reclusive artist Manuel Kaminski and then accompanies the older man on a road trip to find his lost sweetheart. Zöllner is an amusingly odious narrator, but I found the plot a bit thin. This is a rare case where I would argue the book needs to be 100 pages longer.
About midway through the trip I finished another I’d started earlier in the month, This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick. The average American moves 11.7 times in their life. I’m long past that already. The book collects an interesting set of ideas about how to feel at home wherever you are: things like learning the place on foot, shopping and eating locally, and getting to know your neighbors. I am bad about integrating into a new community every time we move, so I picked up some good tips. Warnick uses examples from all over (though mostly U.S. locations), but also makes it specific to her home of Blacksburg, Virginia.
“A cabinet of fantasies, a source of knowledge, a collection of lore from past and present, a place to dream… A bookshop can be so many things.” In A Very Special Year by Thomas Montasser, Valerie takes over Ringelnatz & Co. bookshop when the owner, her Aunt Charlotte, disappears. She has the entrepreneurial skills to run a business and gradually develops a love of books, too. The title book is a magical tome with blank pages that reveal the reader’s destination when the time is right. Twee but enjoyable; a quick read.
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens is a taut thriller set during one woman’s experience of childbirth in New York City in 2004. Flashbacks to how the patient and her Caribbean nurse got where they are now add emotional depth. Another very quick read.
Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig is a psychologically astute novella in which a 12-year-old tries to interpret what’s happening between his mother and a fellow hotel guest, a baron he looks up to. For this naïve boy, many things come as a shock, including the threat of sex and the possibility of deception. This reminded me most of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (On a hill above Salzburg we discovered a strange disembodied bust of Stefan Zweig, along with a plaque and a road sign.)
Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood (releases August 9th) was great fun. Thinking of the six-figure education debt weighing on her shoulders, she surveys various cases of people who faked their own death or simply tried to disappear. Death fraud/“pseudocide” is not as easy to get away with as you might think. Fake drownings are especially suspect. I found most ironic the case of a man who lived successfully for 20 years under an assumed name but was caught when police stopped him for having a license plate light out. I particularly liked the chapter in which Greenwood travels to the Philippines, a great place to fake your death, and comes back with a copy of her own death certificate.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson (releases July 12th) is a historical novel loosely based on the story of the author’s great-aunt. Born in Mississippi in 1915, she had malformed genitals, which led to lifelong incontinence. Jane is a wonderfully plucky protagonist, and her friendship with her doctor, Ed Thompson, is particularly touching. “You would not think someone so afflicted would or could be cheerful, not prone to melancholy or the miseries.” This reminded me most of What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins, an excellent novel about living a full life and finding romance in spite of disability.
I also left two novels unfinished (that’ll be for another post) and made progress in two other nonfiction titles. All in all, a great set of reading!
I’m supposed to be making my way through just the books we already own for the rest of the summer, but when I got back of course I couldn’t resist volunteering for a few new books available through Nudge and The Bookbag. Apart from a few blog reviews I’m bound to, my summer plan will be to give the occasional quick roundup of what I’ve read of late.