Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 240 pages; 2021.
Ella Baxter’s New Animal is one of the best books I have read all year. And I have read a lot of great books in 2021, so many in fact I’m wondering how on earth I am going to choose just 10 for my best books of the year post, which I generally publish on New Year’s Eve.
If I had to sum up in one word what this novel was all about, it would be this: grief.
This doesn’t make it sound all that interesting. And this may be why the blurb makes it sound like it’s a novel solely about sex. While sex — specifically one-night stands and BDSM — does feature heavily in this story, that’s not the prime focus. Indeed, sex is used by the narrator, 28-year-old Amelia Aurelia, as a displacement activity, a way to feel something with her body while her emotions remain very tightly held in check, but there’s more going on below the surface.
This is a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally — for Amelia works in a funeral parlour, where she’s employed as a beautician: she applies make-up to those bodies that will lie in an open casket.
I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal make-up mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the make-up that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.
Despite most people thinking Amelia’s job is creepy, she loves it, not least because she gets to work with her beloved mother and step-father, who owns the business, and her brother who is in a live-in relationship with two other people. (It’s a proper family business, in that sense.)
But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Amelia is thrown into disarray. She does not want to attend the funeral, so books herself a ticket to see her father, who lives in Tasmania. It is here, holed up on his rural property, that she takes her sex life up a level by attending a bondage party with a bloke she meets online.
What ensues is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to put Amelia off. Instead, the pain and humiliation seem to be something she begins to seek out, begging the question: why is she doing it?
Quirky and humorous
This might make the story seem oppressive, but it’s not. It’s quirky, blackly funny and features some terrific one-liners and brilliantly humorous dialogue.
And while the characters are unconventional, they’re not caricatures. In fact, they are well-drawn, alive and believable.
The BDSM scenes are outrageously funny, although they’re also rather concerning because they indicate that Amelia is acting out in an attempt to obliterate past traumas. In as much as I never like to medically diagnose a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder if Amelia might be suffering from PTSD of some form.
It could be argued that New Animal fits into that new genre of “Millennial angst” (see Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan et al), but it’s nowhere near as navel-gazing as most of those stories and is highly original. I’d go as far as to argue that Amelia is relatively happy. She has a job she loves, a supportive family and doesn’t dream of bigger, unattainable things.
Her problem is that she’s unable to emotionally process her feelings (or lack thereof), especially in relation to all the dead bodies she deals with in her job, many of them the result of suicide or accident, and uses sex as a means of escape.
What I needed was to be flattened, squashed and folded under another person. I can’t just remain all stretched out from the day. Like all the people I see in the late afternoons, or evenings, or early hours of the morning, he [her latest hook-up] was going to move me out of my head and into my body. He was going to fill me up with physical feeling to the point where emotions and thoughts were wrung out. And then, sayonara, thank you very much.
New Animal will be published in the UK by Picador and the US by Two Dollar Radio next February. (For the record, I much prefer the Australian cover.)
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessica Tu: This Australian novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.
‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams: Set in modern-day south London, this compelling debut novel follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom.
This is my 25th book for #AWW2021.