Laura Kaye is one of the Daily Telegraph’s four new voices in literature for 2017
English Animals is one of Stylist Magazine’s ‘Big January Reads.’
It is also one of Reader’s Digest books for January.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy may not be something you’ve thought much about, but put it into a Google image search and it becomes strangely compelling: rats playing dominos, mice on a ferris wheel, frogs in a Victorian classroom and Walter Potter’s Kitten’s Wedding. And it’s on a picture of this strange wedding that the fortunes of English Animals’ protagonist, Mirka, pivot.
Mirka is a lost soul - a Slovak immigrant who left her own country due to her sexuality and a scandal. She finds London impossible, and so joins an agency and applies for a poorly defined job as a general assistant in a grand country house. There she meets Sophie and Richard; a couple fighting to support the house with a variety of enterprises from running shoots, hosting weddings and providing b&b to selling taxidermy - it’s the taxidermy they want the most help with.
Mirka starts out reluctantly aiding Richard, but soon surpasses him in skill and, inspired by Walter Potter, starts creating popular ‘scenes’ of her own. Her taxidermy tableaux showcase her gentle and perceptive insight into British culture, and, to me, serve as a reflection of the book itself: English Animals is also a series of portraits of modern Britain, and they’re as original, perceptive and subversive as Mirka’s own.
Sketch by sketch author Laura Kaye builds a picture of a certain slice of rural British society, that is at once unforgiving and affectionate, and generally quite funny. There is Awkward Pub Dinner, Gay Wedding, Bad Taste Party, Picnic With Intolerant Patriarch and East London Magazine Party for starters. The beauty of the book is that for all the familiarity of these settings there is always a fresh and unexpected perspective. The magazine party, for example - for all it’s hipster pretentiousness it is actually a charming source of hope for someone searching for their ‘own tribe.’
As Mirka drags one stuffy(!) British relic into modern times for re-examination, so too does Kaye, undermining expectations and introducing characters that will upend your stereotypes alongside those that will confirm them.
Like my taxidermy image search, English Animals is strangely compelling. It sneaks up on you slowly, not least because it’s written from Mirka’s point of view: as English is not her first language, the prose is necessarily spare and clear, deceptively simple. It’s a fresh and bracing read, with a sweet, sexy love story and complex characters that stay with you long after the book is over. Rather like those taxidermy animals again….
Published: 12th Jan 2017, Little, Brown Book Group UK
Man Booker Prize 2017 longlisted.
Great dancers make the most complicated moves look effortless, and great writers have you swinging through their work like a dance.
Zadie Smith skips easily from London, to New York, to West Africa in her latest novel, without missing a beat. She tells the stories of myriad women, through the eyes of just one, with so light a touch you barely even notice. In fact, I’d finished reading before I realised we don’t even know her name.
Dance is the focus of the two girls central to this story: our unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend Tracey meet at a class in the church adjoining their estates. While one follows her talent to the stage, in the other, the lack of dance feels like a constant pressure waiting to burst out.
Our narrator ends up in a different part of the entertainment world. As a personal assistant to a Madonna-like character, she tends to her needs as she travels the world, and follows through on her charitable plans to set up a girls’ school in a West African village.
It’s an odd mix of subjects. That skip Zadie does - from childhood besties learning about and testing out loyalty, to the glib demands of a celebrity, to an intriguing and fresh depiction of Muslim life in an African village - it sounds weird when you describe it, but it seems so natural when you’re reading.
Perhaps because the central subject doesn’t change. And it’s not dance, it’s simply women.
Mothers, daughters, childless, trapped, free, vindictive, powerful, empowered, weak, naive, loyal, friends, frenemies, employers, politicians and subjects. Every shade of female experience under the sun. And every shade of skin.
Unsurprisingly, given Zadie Smith’s previous work, it’s about women, and also about race. Skin colour matters, if only because it matters to our narrator - the key relationship of her life is based entirely on matching skin tones, and her emotional crises are magnified through the lens of race. Africa, culture, cultural appropriation, history, the point where sex intercepts with race, the point where skin colour means a talented dancer is most likely to show up on stage in Showboat. All these are covered.
It’s not surprising then, given the two central subjects, that this is a subtle and complex work. But the delight of it wasn’t in the heaviness of the subjects Zadie dances over, but the lightness with which it’s done. The frivolous but vivid details of growing up in the 80s - the Thriller video and Back to the Future on VHS - spark a comfortable nostalgia. For me too, the details of both North West London and the music industry are delightfully familiar, as are, for everyone I’m sure, the aims and lives of the charitable celebrity and the emotionally fraught path of school-time friendships.
Strangely, by the end, I felt I knew too what it would be like to stumble around after dark in an African village, the lights failed by the shonky generator, but mobile phone screens casting a blue glow. Basic huts adorned by carefully rendered paintings of the Manchester United logo.
The skill, to me, in Zadie’s misdirecting steps is to make the alien feel as comforting and familiar as the places - physical and emotional - that you already hold dear, and to do so while you’re completely swept up in her dance.
Published: 15th November 2016, Hamish Hamilton
There are the odd few things about The Wangs vs. the World that might feel a little familiar to lovers of the great American novel: three flawed, grown-up children spread out across the USA, an unravelling and slightly hysterical parent determined to gather them under one roof again, and all set against the backdrop of a financial crisis. It’s also an ambitious book with initially unlikeable primary characters, packed with interesting psychological insights and told from multiple perspectives, jigsawing together to build a picture of a modern family.
But this is not the modern classic by Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections, it is the much-hyped debut novel from Jade Chang. And instead of a traditional Midwest family suffering through a modern America they no longer feel at home in, the Wangs are are an immigrant family who have made their home in LA.
Charles Wang, himself the child of Chinese immigrants, moved from Taiwan to the States as a young man to build a fantastically successful cosmetics company, before making a series of bad choices ending in bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Saina, made her own mistakes of judgement that led her from being a successful modern artist and New York It Girl to hiding out in the Catskills. Andrew is a charming, but deluded, aspiring stand-up comedian, while youngest child Grace is a style-blogging 16 yr-old pulled out of boarding school when bankruptcy hits.
The novel tells the story of a road trip, conceived by Charles when his company fails, to collect Andrew and Grace from their schools and deliver them to Saina’s house - to him the reunion is an end in itself.
It’s billed as a comedy, and many reviews seem to shout out how “hilarious” it is, but while I was reading it genuinely didn’t occur to me that it was supposed to be. It was light-hearted and silly in a pleasing way, but I didn’t ever actually laugh. The silliness spread to the writing style too: you see the world through each of the Wang family members - including, rather unexpectedly, their car.
Only a supremely brash and playful book would let you experience a road trip through the eyes (/lights?) of a protective and sensitive vintage banger. Perhaps the car thing was taking it a little too far, but the chapters are short and don’t really get in the way, so why not? It’s certainly interesting.
In the end, despite the echoes, this is not The Corrections. The writing is good, but not as good, the characters are interesting but not as interesting, and it may be ambitious, but it’s not that ambitious. It’s more of a tribute, a Corrrections-lite, a literary exercise based loosely on the same framework. But in my mind no comparison to The Corrections could ever be a bad thing. And to shoot that high and fall short, can still leave you in a very elevated position.
The Wangs vs the World is a good book, and one of the main differences to The Corrections is also one of its main strengths: these adult siblings aren’t irreconcilably different, they’re ultimately on the same side - it really is the Wangs united against the rest of the world - which is actually very heartening and enjoyably sweet.
Published: 3rd November 2016, Fig Tree, Penguin Books (UK)