In brief: Amelia is stuck. She loves her job at a mortuary, but she’s lost elsewhere. Then a family tragedy causes her to feel too much, instead of too little and she runs away.
The good: Unique, raw and unflinching.
The not-so-good: I devoured this in 24 hours.
Why I chose it: That cover. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Setting: Queensland and Tasmania, Australia
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
New Animal is an amazing debut, unlike anything I’ve read before and quite likely to unlike anything I read for some time. It is unique in its subject matter and the bluntness of the feelings involved, both good and bad. It’s a raw look at grief, decision making (generally bad) and how to work through these things when your life insists on falling further apart in your twenties.
Amelia is a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary and from the start you know that New Animal is not going to fit any stereotypes. Amelia deals with grief professionally every day in a very respectful way (the scenes where she prepares the makeup and positioning of the body are heartfelt at their tenderness). Personally, Amelia isn’t going so well. Emotion isn’t something she’s great at, particularly after the loss of her friend Daniel. She tries to seek out happiness and any emotion through hook ups, but it’s not really working. Then something happens to her mum and Amelia is lost. Suddenly she’s feeling too much – too much anger, rage and sadness. The only thing she can do is escape to Tasmania and her father. He’s accepting of her feelings and letting her work through them. Even if that means going to kink parties and joining a BDSM club (where a horse’s head costume is definitely not welcome). Will this help Amelia with her loss?
Ella Baxter has taken a novel primarily about grief and made it hilariously funny at times (sometimes I felt so bad laughing at Amelia’s situations). It captures the essence of broken families and their awkwardness, the comments that turn into slights and the not knowing what to do. The complexity of Amelia’s family (two dads, brother part of a throuple) only adds to the pressure of demands being placed on her. The BDSM scenes are hilariously unsexy, as Amelia describes not knowing what to do and then doing the wrong thing. They take the idea of control and desire and turn it on its head. These are the times when Amelia feels most lost and vulnerable, but are also key to her learning what she doesn’t want. Amelia is a blunt and honest character who hides nothing from the reader and in doing so, makes her incredibly likeable. She is flawed and makes multiple mistakes throughout the novel but never shies away from her decisions. She is stronger than she thinks, but it takes time and a meeting of the dads for her to recognise this and realise that grief is a unique journey.
New Animal is an inventive, wildly original novel that thoroughly deserves all the praise it gets.