Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations

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Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)