Book Review: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

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Sometimes you encounter a book and you don’t know quite what to make of it. Sometimes you feel this right from the first page, and from there you plough on with a weird and wonderful feeling that things are slowly beginning to make sense and you’re coming to be at home in your new dimension of existence. This is what happened when I read Lanny by Max Porter.

Other times, as with Kristen Arnett’s Mostly Dead Things, the transition into this new world is straightforward: a taxidermy shop in the USA isn’t such a jump for me – a plane and taxi ride could get me somewhere similar – and Arnett’s style is reassuringly clear so you never feel lost wherever she puts you. But by the end of the book you realise you’ve been transported in some subtle way after all.

The weirdness of Kristen Arnett’s debut novel is advertised all over the front and back cover: it is strange and funny and surprising, say the reviews. A lot of the strangeness derives from the fact that this book is about taxidermy, which is to me a topic not just strange but stomach-turning, and I occasionally had to put this book down for a moment or even skip ahead a few paragraphs where there was a particularly graphic depiction of the process of cutting into skin and scooping out insides.

Mostly Dead Things is about a woman who has worked for her father at the family business – the taxidermy shop – since she was a child. And then one day her father kills himself, leaving the daughter to deal with both the business and with her mother’s grief, the latter manifesting itself in bizarre artistic expression – her mother has begun creating sculpture that uses the dead animals from the family shop to depict sexual scenes.

Things take an even darker turn where Arnett describes instances of cruelty to live animals – and the way the main character, Jessa, deals with the fact of these crimes is part if the arc of the story.

Despite the weirdness, it is in some ways a very ordinary story: Jessa is a workaholic who has shut herself off from the possibility of finding love. She’s very selfish, and that’s part of her problem. She lives alone in a messy flat and drinks too much beer. In her current condition, there’s not much to like about her – as she keeps telling herself, but she can’t seem to fix it.

And this is at the heart of what I found so interesting about the book: we’re not given any likeable characters to root for – Jessa herself does some truly horrible things. And we’re not even given any unlikeable yet fascinating characters – Jessa works and Jessa drinks, occasionally she lashes out, and she never has the moral strength to stand up and speak when she sees others do wrong. Her own wrongdoing comes from her weakness, from a despair that leaves her helpless to take any real, positive action. This gives the story a very ordinary quality: we’re just watching people going about their lives, being pushed this way and that, and we watch idly in the way we often do watching reality TV – a morbid interest in people we have no feeling for.

Ironically, perhaps this ordinariness is what is strangest of all about the book. It’s a rare skill to be able to hold the interest of a reader without resorting to obvious fantasy, and my interest was held right to the end. I think it’s the claustrophobia that Arnett conjures up that makes it so compelling: the heaviness of the heat, the walls of the shop, the proximity of Jessa’s family – the girl she was in love with went on to marry Jessa’s brother before finally leaving him, which presents us with an awkward unspoken bond between sister and brother. All of this contributes to the pressured intensity of this little world that compelled me to keep reading.

A word about Arnett’s style: very clear sentences with lots of tactile and visual detail, making the scenes come to life with colour and sensation. So much so that what’s going on around the characters can distract from the progression of the story.  I don’t mean this as a criticism: I like when a writer takes as much care over making the setting come to life as they do with continuing the story. I don’t mind when things slow down to a crawl, so you can feel the heat of the hot sun and the hangovers of the characters as they wrestle over their own and each other’s problems.

And this was the subtle effect of the book on me by the time I reached the final page: that I had gradually been placed in this strange ordinary world, in all its light and colour, gristle and grisliness, and clammy claustrophobia.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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