English Animals, by Laura Kaye
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