English Animals by Laura Kaye
Reading this sparkling debut, in which Mirka, a young Slovakian woman, finds herself working for an English couple in the depths of the countryside, I couldn’t help thinking of what it was like to listen to The Archers for the first time. All those posh folk going on about pheasant shooting, church flower arranging, so-and-so’s latest money-making venture, drinking like fishes of course and we mustn’t forget who’s shagging whom. It must be so alien if not your world!
Richard and Sophie are all of the above – they live in a crumbling pile, they get by on B&B bookings and weddings which Sophie does, and shooting parties which Richard does with the help of surly gamekeeper David, (David being a real Fast Show ‘Ted’ type). At other times, Richard tinkers with his latest scheme of taxidermy.
Richard and Sophie are childless and live life to the full; they argue, they make up, they party, they drink. They need someone to give them some focus else their relationship surely won’t last.
Mirza, who is nominally employed as their housekeeper, gets commandeered to help Richard do his taxidermy – and soon she’s better than him at it. Both Richard and Sophie individually take Mirka under their wing, and she becomes friends with both of them. Mirza is happy there, Richard and Sophie are really kind to her, and she starts to open up about her own situation which throws the delicate balance between the three of them off-kilter – I shall say no more.
There are some hilarious set-pieces – the bad taste party later in the novel is very bad taste indeed! A scene near the beginning is typical of the way Sophie and Richard live in chaos:
‘Come in, come in. Richard’s gone to the pub.’ She bit the side of her lip. ‘I’ve had a slight disaster with the lasagne.’
I walked to the table and stood next to her. The lasagne looked OK, with circles of brown bubbles in the cheese and a big hole in the corner where someone ate some already. I was so hungry.
‘What is wrong with it?’ I said.
‘Scrabble got up on the chair and took a couple of bites out of it.’ Sophie looked towards the dogs in the giant basket and waved her finger. ‘Didn’t you, you bad dog.’
The dogs had their chins resting on the edge of the basket and looked guilty. I realised who Scrabble was and what had happened. I wanted to kill the dog.
Sophie put some lasagne on the plate and looked at it closely before giving it to me.
‘There you go. I think I’ve got all of it. Anyway a bit of dog saliva won’t kill us,’ she said laughing. ‘Sit down, sit down.’
I tried to laugh politely, but I felt the hairs rising on my arms. I could not believe Sophie was going to eat the dog lasagne, and that she thought I was going to eat it. I thought I must have not understood something.
Equally, there are moving moments too. Mirka’s matter of fact English gives her narration a dry and slightly quizzical slant, but she has plenty of emotion bubbling underneath. However, I really rather warmed to Richard and Sophie and found myself hoping they would pull through as a couple.
Once she gains the requisite skills, Mirza’s taxidermy takes on an interesting slant. She begins to create tableaux of stuffed, dressed mice and squirrels, 21st century versions of Walter Potter’s ‘anthropomorphic dioramas’ as Wikipedia describes them.
I remember visiting Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, when it was resident at Arundel in the mid-1970s. It had loads of Victorian taxidermy, but also pickled two-headed lambs and four-legged chickens and the like. It was fascinating! Eventually the collection was auctioned off, despite Damien Hirst offering £1,000,000 to keep it together – individually sold, the lot raised £500k.
This secondary theme does beg the question – are we just like those animals that are dressed up? This novel plays with that through Mirza’s outsider viewpoint. I enjoyed it a lot. (8/5/10)
Source: Review copy
Laura Kaye, English Animals (Little, Brown – Jan 2017), hardback, 368 pages.