Mostly Dead Things
Written by Kristen Arnett
Review by Jarad Johnson
I saw this book some time ago and was intrigued by the title. Reading the back of the cover, I was even more interested. A book about a taxidermist whose daughter finds him dead in his shop? Sounds right up my alley. I was interested, but I also had no real idea what to expect. In cases like these, I often look to the covers of the book to give me some insight into what’s going on inside. The cover of the copy that I was bright green with a flamingo on it, so there were no clues there. Nothing to do but delve into the pages.
The plot revolves around a taxidermy store, a place where the narrator grew up (her brother couldn’t handle it and passed out). Now, I don’t like taxidermy in general, and we get a vivid behind the scenes look at how that process takes place. Dead animals being gutted and skinned, being mounted and recreated into grotesque (in my opinion) pieces of art, disturbing still lives, a representation of humankind’s desire to conquer nature. Like many things in this book, the process of taxidermy is vivid and…disgusting. The author is very good at creating scenes that cause a visceral response. There’s an undercurrent of griminess to the whole novel. Reading it is sort of like looking through a dirty windshield, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. However, there is a point when, in an attempt to generate revenue, some characters in the book run down some live peacocks so they can be taxidermied and sold at the store. The idea of taking beautiful animal and terrifying it to death just to have it mounted on someone’s wall is revolting to me, and I couldn’t really like any of the characters after that, although to be fair, I didn’t like any of them that much to begin with.
The books explores grief and mother/daughter relationships, which, like the novel itself, are complicated and messy. The main character’s mother is the most interesting person in the book. How she deals with her husbands’ grief, and her honest reflection about their controlling relationship, was the most poignant part. She takes her husbands taxidermy and mutilates it, turning it into therapeutic art. What she does with the art and its reception are an interesting twist in her life and has repercussions on her relationships with her children. The intention here is that, I think, her art is therapeutic for her because of the nearly forty years of repression and subjugation that she’s dealing with, and while I found it extremely amusing as a bystander, I cannot imagine how I would feel if I was part of that family.
Her daughter, the main character, understandably struggles with her mother’s new hobby, though the author seems to judge her for it, even though I think the protagonist reacts how most of us would react. Without too many spoilers, let’s just say their Thanksgiving is going to be so awkward. These plot twists are interesting because sometimes grief doesn’t look like we want it to, or how we expect it to be. And it’s true that everyone handles it differently, but, like the daughter in the story, I couldn’t help but see the mother’s attempts to deal with grief as slightly sophomoric, and I honestly still haven’t worked out all my thoughts on this particular plotline; perhaps we’re not meant to or perhaps we would see the outcomes differently at different ages.
While I appreciated some of the themes and the visceral writing style, the crudeness of the novel lingered like a bad taste. The author’s ability to pull us into scenes with her writing was a detriment in some ways because I was left wondering why I’d let myself into a such a realistic and off-putting world. The constant “dirt on the window” made the journey tiresome in the end. It was like driving through a desert where the constant grit and dust made me long for some respite. This is not exactly an escape-with-a-cup-of-tea novel. There seem to be a lot of gritty coming of age novels lately where a miasma of distaste lingers throughout. While I am not fan of such books, this is a well-written example of the genre.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!