It’s not easy getting close to people. Amelia’s meeting a lot of men but once she gets the sex she wants from them, that’s it for her; she can’t connect further. A terrible thing happened to Daniel last year and it’s stuck inside Amelia ever since, making her stuck too.
Maybe being a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business isn’t the best job for a young woman. It’s not helping her social life. She loves her job, but she’s not great at much else. Especially emotion.
And then something happens to her mum and suddenly Amelia’s got too many feelings and the only thing that makes any sense to her is running away.
It takes the intervention of her two fathers and some hilariously wrong encounters with other broken people in a struggling Tasmanian BDSM club to help her accept the truth she has been hiding from. And in a final, cataclysmic scene, we learn along with Amelia that you need to feel another person’s weight before you can feel your own.
Ella Baxter’s debut novel New Animal explores sex, family, death and grief. Our protagonist — Amelia — is using sex to mask emotional pain. Not quite ready to process the suicide of a friend one year earlier, her chaotic life is disrupted even further when her mother unexpectedly passes.
New Animal certainly feels unique, a compact read sitting at just over 200 pages. It almost feels like a slightly extended short story, delicately weaving through Amelia’s life with intimacy and ease. The reader feels like some sort of passenger along a journey, intimate enough that we quickly grow to love Amelia, but at times so closely following this life that we find ourselves feeling a little claustrophobic — in a good way — when Amelia’s experiments with sex escalate.
Trigger warning around suicide and also BDSM. There is one particular scene in a Tasmanian BDSM club that took me quite some time to process.
“Once, I told a man what I needed from him and he recoiled, appalled. He said that I was basically using people, crushing them between my pincers. He tapped his thumb and forefinger together to demonstrate.”
Ella’s biggest strength is how easily and expertly she writes in first person. The prose is eloquent, as if pored over for hours. But we also get such fascinating insight into Amelia’s state of mind — her pain. Amelia’s observations about others are insightful and imaginative, but the prose is also lean and brief, allowing for a succinct and quick-moving plot.
Another admirable aspect to the book is the family dynamic, and Ella’s ability to capture Amelia’s family with an authentic sense of warmth. Despite Amelia’s struggles, she’s got a really beautiful family who all come together in a crisis. Their voices are very different, and Amelia’s relationship with both of her fathers adds layers to the family make-up.
“People can sometimes act boldly around the bereaved. They can quickly take care to an unfathomable level. It’s part of the horror of it all really. One person rolls out of your life and half-a-dozen others roll right in. I’ve seen people turn up to funerals ready to harass Judy for extra biscuits or seat cushions. In it for the long haul.”
I think there was room to further explore Amelia’s relationship with her family, in particular her fathers. Her siblings in particular are absent for most of the novel, and I think there was more that could’ve been explored with their presence in Amelia’s life.
Interestingly, a lot of messaging around this novel positions it as ‘funny’, which isn’t how I would describe this. I found the story moving and tender, at times situationally awkward. It’s heartbreaking, yes. But I wouldn’t call this a laugh-out-loud comedy.
“Most nights I find myself trying to combine with someone else to become this two-headed thing with flailing limbs, chomping teeth, and tangled hair. This new animal. I am medicated by another body. Drunk on warm skin. Dumbly high on the damp friction between them and me.”
Original and engrossing in style and characterisation, recommended for readers of literary fiction. Ella offers incredible insight into humanity and its multitude of emotions. Readership skews female, 25+
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Allen & Unwin Book Publishers