Title: English Animals
Author: Laura Kaye
First published: 2017
Dates read: 03. 09.-17. 09. 2019
Category: first-time read, own book, LGBTQ+
The book in five words or less: taxidermy, lesbians & social critique
Mirka is nineteen, Slovakian, and in search of a job and a better life. When English couple Sophie and Richard offer her a position as their assistant on a spacious English country estate, Mirka believes her dreams are about to come true. Sophie and Richard are chaotic and argue frequently, but they are also incredibly warm and welcoming towards her. What starts with Mirka helping out with Sophie’s B&B and doing bits and bobs around the house, soon develops into her making herself indispensable to both of them. To everyone’s surprise, Mirka shows a particular knack for taxidermy. She also, increasingly, falls in love with Sophie.
English Animals is a book that promises to be both a queer coming-of-age story a poignant social commentary on what it means to be English. I am happy to report that it manages to deliver on both of these promises.
Mirka’s relationship with Sophie is sexy, emotional and occasionally sweet, but also complicated and messy. After all, Sophie is married, and Richard is not a character Mirka – or the reader – hates. Nevertheless, their relationship is not devoid of conflict, and not exactly one for a happily ever after.
I liked that the book wasn’t about Mirka figuring out she was gay – that was a given and revealed fairly early on in the story – but rather about how and under which circumstances relationships can develop and be sustained. I also liked that all three main characters were complex people with conflicting interests, feelings, and behaviours. Mirka in particular gets a lot of character development that leads her, in the end, to making her own decisions about what is best for her.
Many of the side characters, on the other hand, feel a little bit like caricatures. There’s David, the gamekeeper who hates Mirka because she’s an Eastern European immigrant, Celia, a local woman who is dog-crazy and passive-aggressive in a very particular, very polite, and very English way, Sophie’s xenophobic, homophobic and all-round horrible father, and Caleb the art dealer who sells on Mirka’s taxidermy scenes to his London hipster clientele.
While these characters might appear flat at first glance, I actually think that they were written like that on purpose. Their slightly overdrawn features make them act as stand-ins for all manner of real-life people and their attitudes towards foreigners, art, identity, and country life. Together with Richard and Sophie’s business ventures – a Bed & Breakfast cum wedding location, pheasant shooting excursions, and a taxidermy business – they serve to illustrate how very much Englishness is a construct, and a particular incongruent one at that. The lack of cohesiveness in the ‘English’ identity becomes apparent in confrontation with and observation by the foreigner, who dissects all the ways in which appearances are only perpetuated for appearance’s sake and truly ring hollow underneath.
During her stay at Sophie and Richard’s estate, Mirka not only unmasks the machinery behind the illusion that is British country house life – there are shooting parties where no one actually wants to eat the birds that were shot, ‘home-baked’ cakes straight out of the freezer, and ‘full English breakfasts’ that only the American tourists eat – but she also finds a new way of expressing her observations through taxidermy.
Mirka’s taxidermy in particular is a humorous, well-observed commentary on modern life. From drunk partying to coffee shop hipsters, the scenes depict many of the staples of contemporary British social life. I will say, as a word of warning, that some of the taxidermy scenes were described quite vividly, but always with purpose. Mirka herself is averse to taxidermy at first, at least until she learns to approach dead animals in a respectful manner congruent with her principles. In the progress of the novel, the taxidermy scenes serve as stages of development in Mirka’s character and her relationship with Richard and are usually dignified – or, in the case where they aren’t, the fallout of that is dealt with in the novel.
One other feature of the book that I really liked was that Mirka’s struggle with English as a second language was depicted in a convincing manner. Mirka’s narrative style as a first-person narrator is simple and straightforward, but there is also an underlying humour and anger that I found quite charming. As for her vocabulary, there are a number of instances where it is obvious that she doesn’t know the precise English words for things and instead describes them, something that I have seen other non-native speakers (myself included) do quite frequently. I found this a very impressive way of creating a narrator who feels both foreign – because she is – and convincing.
Overall, I liked English Animals. Sure, it wasn’t the deepest book I’ve ever read, but it was solid, executed in a competent way, and delivered what it promised to do. It is also a very timely book that asks important questions about belonging and identity; questions, I believe, that have gained a particular urgency in light of Brexit. And yes, I am using the dreaded B-word; I think it’s appropriate.
(PS: Yes, I wrote ‘Englishness’ and not ‘Britishness’ on purpose. This book has a very southern, very English feel to it that, I think, wouldn’t work in quite the same way for a novel taking place in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.)
Content warnings: homophobic slurs, xenophobia, taxidermy and dead animals, hunting, unfaithfulness / adultery, recreational drug use
Read if you like: British country houses, social satire, crosswords, and possibly Gosford Park