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: Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott (Scottish Children’s Book Award Shortlist)

I was investigating the Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist recently, because Scotland’s been on the brain and I only know how to deal with big issues through literature.  I read an awful lot of Scottish fiction – for children, teens, and adults – while I was living there, but have felt it rather lacking in my life this past year.  To patch up the hole in my heart where kelpies and mystical grans used to dwell, I decided to buy and read the nominated books which struck my fancy.  (I dunno why so many of the books I used to read read at the public library in St Andrews had grandmothers full of secrets, but it’s a trend I encourage wholeheartedly.)

The first book I read was Dark Spell by Gill Arbuthnott.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Dark Spell is listed under the Older Readers section, for ages 12-16.  I would definitely say that Dark Spell is for readers on the younger side of that spectrum, maybe ages 10-13.  It’s a little scary, with a malevolent spirit and haunted house, but the story might not be quite complex or dramatic enough to keep the attention of older teens.

Callie is awkward and unpopular at school.  She doesn’t go along with the other students’ pranks.  Whenever she gets upset, a weird prickling surges through her and odd things tend to happen.  After a bully in school goes one step too far and Callie somehow makes her fall from across the room, she can’t ignore what makes her different any longer.  Her grandmother, Rose, explains everything: Callie is a witch, like Rose, and must learn to control her powers.  The summer holidays bring Callie’s best friend, Josh, up to Fife from Edinburgh.  When the two of them go exploring in the medieval tunnels, something horrible and angry from the past latches onto them from the darkness.  They’ve accidentally woken an angry presence that begins to haunt Callie’s home and threatens her loved ones.  With the help of Rose, Josh, and some dear old ladies who are more powerful than they might appear, Callie must come to terms with her heritage and trust the frightening power she commands.

My very favorite thing about Dark Spell was the fact that it takes place in St Andrews and Fife, which is my most beloved place in the whole wide bloody world.  (You can see the silhouette of St Andrews at the top of the cover.  Ain’t it stunning?)  The setting made me homesick and happy, as did the fact that local history was the plot’s driving force.  The tunnels beneath the castle ruins really do exist, and it’s true that the besiegers and besieged dug to meet one another and battled down there.  So the ghostly consequences of such violent times made a lot of sense.  Coastal Fife is simply gorgeous, and while the descriptions aren’t over-wrought I was instantly transported back to the towns and cliffs which would pass by my window on the bus ride to Anstruther or Pittenweem. Setting matters a lot to me, and being able to picture my old beloved town while I read Dark Magic was a nice treat.  There’s plenty of ghostly lore around those parts, what with all the significant historical events that took place around St Andrews over the centuries, and I liked how Gill Arbuthnott required Callie and Josh to pay attention to history in order to get rid of the dangerous magic that plagued them.

Another strong point in this book: Callie’s grandmother, Rose, and Rose’s friend Bessie who were sharp and funny old ladies.  I could hear their voices so clearly whenever they magically contacted one another in the washing up basin or made quick jokes before facing terrible ancient powers together.  There’s a certain kind of East Fife Old Lady who I would see at the baker’s or walking their dogs along the coastal path. Bessie and Rose make me hope that some of the ladies I encountered might be grandmotherly, no-nonsense witches, too.

The haunting that goes on at Callie’s house started out with a classic scare that has yet to get old for me: something dark and nightmarish lurking around her bedroom while she sleeps.  And you know it’s a serious problem when the cat gets scared!  Soon enough, gross water is leaking out of the walls and she’s starting to show physical signs of spectral interference.  There’s nothing too new, there, but the frightening images were pretty good.  I was more impressed with the way that Callie’s parents start acting really unlike themselves the longer they stay in the house, and how this makes Callie worry what they might truly think of her odd abilities.  Until this side-effect of the haunting came into play, I thought that the family’s interactions would be one-dimensional throughout the whole book.  It was fixed a little too easily for my tastes – in fact, the character development in general was rather undershot all around– but that particular negative reaction to bad magic made Callie’s inevitable battle with the darkness more personal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get entirely drawn into the story of Dark Spell, because the pacing was never quite right. The small-scale magic begins almost right away, but it feels like ages until the more exciting events start up. And watching vaguely “weird” girls magically spill food on shallow bullies feels hollow after decades of similar antics in children’s fiction. While other books about young people learning magic could go on for days about the nature of spells – I would happily read 600 pages about Hogwarts’ curriculum alone, for example – the source of the witches’ power here never extends beyond the surface.  Once Josh and Callie go down into the tunnels the tension builds a little more, but still I never got too worried about the friends’ inevitable success.

It’s not that there wasn’t enough at stake: I like smaller-scale fantasy stories better than the oh-crap-gotta-save-the-world ones, most of the time.  I just think that neither the writing nor the characterization in Dark Spell were quite strong enough to carry a few great ghoulish scenes through an otherwise average story.  (Excepting, of course, the lovely setting which remains so close to my heart.)

We only get the barest glimpse of Callie’s personality before she starts freaking out about her powers, so there’s not much to compare against her new-found identity as a witch.  She and her mother have some unhappy disagreements about Callie’s social life, but I found her mother’s contention over Rose’s influence more convincing.  As a heroine in a fantasy story, Callie is resourceful and she learns to be brave, but a little more development of her pre-magical interests and dreams would have been nice.  I did like the origins of her friendship with Josh: they mostly communicate online and only get to see one another occasionally, so things are awkward at first but soon fall back into companionable comfort.  There’s barely any romance in Dark Spell, which is why I’m recommending it for younger readers rather than teens.  Naturally, I rejoiced over the lack of sexual tension, but even for platonic friends Josh and Callie were a unusually wholesome compared to the teenagers I know.

While the clean language and no drama outside of the fantasy plot might disappoint more seasoned readers, I do think that it makes the book appropriate for anyone over 10 as long as they like scary stories and a little bit of gruesome history.

Review of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Star Ratings

Characters: 5 stars

Character Development: 4 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Writing: 4 stars

Overall: 4 stars

Age recommendation: 16 and up

It took me two nights to read The Wasp Factory, not because it was particularly long – it’s actually quite a short novel – but because it’s one extremely tense and disturbing little story. I’m still reeling from the news of Iain Banks’s death, it’s a tragedy for the literary world and for the Earth in general. I had only read The Crow Road before I first met him, and a bit of Stonemouth after, but I’ve been wanting to read The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas ever since he did two talks with the St Andrews Literary Society in the past couple of years. I had the amazing luck to go out with Iain and his lovely girlfriend (now widow) Adele upon both occasions, and he was such an interesting and funny man. In fact, he was witty as hell even when he was writing about his own mortality. The universe is worse without him, but was improved by his 59 years of existence. So, thinking about him and unable to sleep, I finally picked up The Wasp Factory to see if it was as distressing as everyone had told me it was.

Oh yes, this is a messed up book indeed. It is absorbing and well paced, and I think I could have finished it the night I started reading just because it seemed impossible to extract my own train of thought from the antihero Frank’s own narration. However, I was so freaked out by a few of the scenes that I needed to take a break from the twisted world Banks has created in Frank’s head. There are only a few characters in The Wasp Factory, partly because it takes place on a tiny, secluded island somewhere just off the coast of Northern Scotland, but also because we see the world through Frank’s eyes, and Frank doesn’t find other human beings very interesting or important. He’s a sixteen year old with psychopathic tendencies who provides the reader with twisted rationalizations to the murders of his little brother and two young cousins which he committed years ago.

The explanations to his actions are in such matter-of-fact tones that its difficult to get a read on the book’s narrator, making him all the more frightening.  He says at one point:

“Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through,”

and the delusional logic which inspires his actions is presented in such an offhand manner that his thoughts seem even more monstrous than his violent acts. When he describes the creative but horrifying murder of little Esmerelda, against whom he felt no real malice, Frank assumes that his reader shares his unnatural view of the world and its rules:

“I killed little Esmerelda because I felt I owed it to myself and to the world in general. I had, after all, accounted for two male children and thus done womankind something of a statistical favour.”

What ate into my brain the most (oops, that’s a sick pun which will only make sense after you read the book) was the way that the murderous compulsions, the gory scenes of animal torture, and even the macabre rituals of The Factory and the Sacrifice Poles start to take on a weird rationality of their own as we get sucked into this book. Banks managed to tell a story with no real hero, following a character to whom it should be impossible to relate, and yet The Wasp Factory is still the sort of book that people read voraciously, desperate to understand what it is that’s horrifying them so much.

There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding Frank’s father, a bit of suspense as his older brother makes his way home after escaping from a lunatic asylum, and a bit of philosophy as Frank makes observations about human kind – observations which are so poignant because his view of our species is removed by a few degrees of madness. However, the plot focuses largely on Frank’s personal inner turmoil and the methods with which he comes to terms with his actions and desires. The story is a “page turner” because of the writing and the characters, not necessarily because Banks wrote a tightly constructed plot. I suppose I would call The Wasp Factory a thriller of sorts, but mostly because of the thrills of revulsion I got whenever a particularly gruesome scene forced its way into my imagination. There are a few twists in the book, and one huge one which provides quite a shock, but this is a story about a murderer more than it is a story about murders. Iain Banks writes so well as a dangerously unstable young man that it’s difficult to imagine him as the jovial, hilarious, and warmly friendly fellow who he really was.

I’d recommend The Wasp Factory to anyone who spends the moments before they fall asleep wondering if they’re in danger of going mad, because it shows the shocking depth to which some people’s inhumanity can reach. It’s also the sort of book which would appeal to mystery readers – though the mysteries in the plot are certainly less interesting than the narrative voice – as well as to fans of distinctly Scottish writing, and violent books like American Psycho and A Clockwork Orange. I gave it an age recommendation of sixteen and older because, despite the fact that the protagonist is a teenager, Banks does not shy away from the sort of horrific imagery which you can’t bleach out of your brain no matter how hard you try to imagine yourself in a happy place. I tried to think about kittens to comfort myself about halfway through the book, but that only upset me more because Frank or his brother would probably mutilate those kittens… It’s disturbing, is what I mean to say, and when you’re a young kid and already disturbed enough as it is, this sort of writing won’t do your developing brain any favors. That being said, I think it’s a fascinating example of realistic fiction with a taint of horror and some extremely dark magical thinking. Banks’s writing skills are impressive, and reading The Wasp Factory has encouraged me to try and get my hands on some of his Science Fiction (written as Iain M. Banks) this summer, to read more about the imaginative worlds which lived in this talented and inspiring author’s mind.

Iain with me and a friend a The Central after his second talk with the St Andrews Literary Society.

Archived Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Originally posted on The Saint’s Arts and Culture page – St Andrews’ independent student newspaper – on October 16, 2012

 

As an avid fan of Pratchett’s Discworld series and of Mr. Dickens’ novels I spent a torturous few days staring longingly at Dodger as I passed Waterstones before I finally gave in and bought the hardcover.  From the off, it is obvious that this novel was set in Dickensian London – a fact which should be obvious given the title and main character, who was one of Dickens’ many creation – and I resolved not to search for the outlandish, farcical elements of Discworld in Dodger.  It is important that any previous fans of Terry Pratchett become comfortable with this idea before they dive into the murky sewers and shadowy corners of Dodger‘s London, because this novel is quite different from Pratchett’s hilarious fantasies, though it does retain his warm humor and wry view of humanity.

The story itself is an adventure and a mystery, starring young Dodger with guest appearances by Dickens, Henry Mayhew, and some other familiar names.  Dodger is a ‘tosher’: someone who scavenges the sewers of London for dropped riches and trinkets, and a popular rascal amongst the less-washed citizens of Victorian London.  When he rescues a girl from some violent men, he finds himself wrapped up in political intrigue (not to mention emotional turmoil) well above his head and his status.  We join Dodger as he works out the mystery girl’s origins, navigating through some awkward upper class dinner parties, gets himself into scrapes only to talk himself out of them.  Occasionally the main character seemed a little too smooth and unnaturally lucky, but the somber and often enlightening presence of his wise landlord Solomon served well to keep the tale from losing its grip on the reader.  While the book is an enjoyably easy read, it makes gentle observations of poverty and misery which would make Mayhew proud; and indeed, it is to Henry Mayhew that Terry Pratchett has dedicated his book.

In his acknowledgements Pratchett describes Dodger as ‘a historical fantasy, and not a historical novel,’ and while there is no magic of the hocus-pocus variety to be found, the fantasy comes in a form I can only describe as a historically-minded literature nerd’s daydream.  Characters from Victorian legend, literary giants, and historical figures all mingle together in this atmospheric mystery story.  It’s got adventure, romance, and a wink or two from the author to his readers as he sends his hapless protagonist to Fleet Street for a shave or places the young vagabond next to Sir Robert Peel at a dinner party.  I was so fully absorbed into the story as it twisted through the sewers and streets of London that I didn’t have time to miss the oddities of the Discworld novels; Dodger may not be as funny, but on a dark October night it is the perfect book for history and literature enthusiasts as well as long time fans of Terry Pratchett.