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Posted on 13 Apr 2021 in Fiction |

ELLA BAXTER New Animal. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey

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Grief and its consequences are at the heart of Ella Baxter’s New Animal.

Ella Baxter’s debut novel is about a young woman attempting to make sense of her world and her body after she has experienced two serious bouts of grief. This needs to be said upfront because a reader could get caught up in the detail of this story and forget that this young woman is experiencing deep pain.

Amelia’s family has a funeral business and Amelia is the cosmetician, a job she enjoys. She spends time and emotional energy on getting the corpse looking natural as a comfort to the deceased’s family. After each job she escapes to a lookout where she can chill out and recover:

I’m about to pull out of the car park when I see my mother jogging towards me.

She leans through the window panting. ‘You heading to the lookout?’

‘Yeah just for a bit,’ I say, hand on the steering wheel ready to go.

‘Need to commune with nature?’

‘Always,’ I say.

‘Do you ever feel his presence there?’

‘Nope. Just a good view.

Amelia has been deeply affected by the death of Daniel, the son of a local councillor, who jumped off a cliff. Amelia is affected by his death because she believes he did not respect his body – something she understands. She sees Daniel as an ‘everyman’, someone she might encounter walking down the street, or meet online. And takes it upon herself to live for both of them:

After Daniel’s death I had a duty to live in double time. I squashed his existence into my own and took it upon myself to jump into everything for both of us. My body could take the baton on and jog us both forward.

Amelia attempts to deal with this grief by engaging in sex with men found on websites, not one partner a night but a chain of men, going from one to the other, tracking them on her phone. In one scene she asks her partner to say the words ‘I will ruin you. I. Will. Ruin. You.’ while he has sex with her. She explains her behaviour to herself by saying that:

I can separate feelings into imaginary boxes inside the mind. In one box, I put all the delicate, fractured wounds of the bodies I see all day. I fill it up with uncomfortable emotions and images. Then in another box, I shove all the vivid warmth and liveliness of the people I see at night. I need both boxes, one balancing the other out, me ping-ponging between them.

Amelia lives her life this way for the first part of the book and she thinks it is working for her.

Then the second episode of grief explodes into her life: her beloved mother falls down stairs and dies. Amelia can’t cope with losing the mainstay of her life; she decides not to attend her mother’s funeral and flees to Tasmania to stay with her estranged father. He is delighted to see her, but being with him is not the same as the warm and embracing home life her mother had created. Amelia appreciates his reserve and rejects any overtures he makes to get closer, refusing to discuss their previous life or her mother as he tries to justify why he left the family.

But Amelia feels too much responsibility in being tethered to other people. She doesn’t want to think about them, to feel anything for them, or to be safe or responsible.

She takes the time in Tasmania to move further into risky sex acts. She has one experience as a sub and gets badly hurt. After that episode she decides to learn to be a dominatrix. She ends up at a cheaply renovated suburban house where she learns the tricks of the trade and is then let loose on her first customer, who ends up getting something other than what he paid for.

As I was reading New Animal, I was taken back to the eighties when some young women I worked with considered it would be romantic to work in a mortuary and would attend job interviews dressed in spider-webby black clothes, white makeup and black lipstick, and were surprised they weren’t offered a job. In the nineties, my then-teenage children and their friends were obsessed with black, the paraphernalia of BDSM, patent leather clothes, piercings, dog chains, death and vampires. They were Goths, clomping round in their Doc Martins, out dancing all night in clubs, their mornings spent recovering at day clubs, mixing with sex workers and bikies.

Each generation has their obsessions, and New Animal is a book for this generation, where young people explore extremes. Though Amelia chooses a particularly hard rock to climb to find herself.

The blurb on the back of the book describes it as ‘deadpan, wise and heartbreakingly funny’. I don’t consider it that. The story is told in the first person so we view the events through Amelia’s numbness and naivety, which is reflected in the tone of the writing; the writing can seem emotionally flat because there is no outside input to show what is happening to this young woman. It’s not funny; it’s a road accident unfolding in front of you. There is nothing you can do except watch it happen.

New Animal is an excellent exploration of how grief can impact a young person’s life. I think having Amelia work in a mortuary only muddies the waters; it is a familiar trope that allows readers to experience the macabre without having to think more deeply about Amelia’s issues and her state of mind.

Do read it, if only to understand the damage that grief can cause in young peoples’ lives, and how some have it harder than others.

Ella Baxter New Animal Allen and Unwin 2021 PB 240pp $29.99

Linda Godfrey is a poet, editor and teacher. She lives on Wodi Wodi land, on the south coast of New South Wales.

You can buy New Animal from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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