Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
Firstly congratulations once again to Emma who was one of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winners back in June. I hadn’t read either of her novels, but she was so lovely, I bought Animals that night and she kindly signed it for me (crossing off the ‘By an author you’ve met’ box on my Book Bingo card too).
This novel took me right back to my student days, especially my first term at university where it I cultivated many friendships through the medium of gallons of beer/lager/cider (and a curry on a good night). It was the late 1980s and beer was 34p a pint in the Union Bar, so we didn’t go out elsewhere very often, except for curry. Getting in with the rugby crowd, I didn’t do clubs or drugs either – it was all about the beer and I had a good time as a beer-swilling ladette – with lots of loo-breaks I imagine with all that volume!
Fast forward three decades – pre-loading with wine and vodka and whatever drugs are going before pubbing/clubbing/partying and more wine, more drugs and so on, followed by the most hellish hangovers is where it’s at these days (not for me though, I hasten to add). Meet Laura and Tyler. They’re not students however, they’re young women with jobs and they’re in the latter half of their twenties, but still living and behaving like students – most of the time. Laura is our narrator (please excuse the language):
What are you doing, you maniac? It’s Sunday!
It’s fucking Monday and I’m fucking late she said, batting a dimp out of her regulation baseball cap.
What’s that on your eye?
She turned to the mirror. Gasped and sighed. It’s a low-budget high-definition eyebrow.
It’s permanent marker.
It’s A Clockworkmotherfuckingorange Oh Lo Lo Lo, what am I going to do? (p3)
A typical morning after the night before for the flatmates. Tyler is American and her parents bought the flat for her. She doesn’t really need to work, but does. Laura meanwhile is trying to write her first novel (provisionally called Bacon) and is always skint.
The two are best friends, but lately there is something, or rather, someone who is threatening their cameraderie. That someone looks like forcing Laura to make the decision to grow up and become a responsible adult. That someone is Jim, Laura’s fiancé. Jim, unexpectedly, is a concert pianist of growing reputation and he has recently become teetotal to help his focus on his playing. Predictably, Tyler can’t understand Laura over this:
‘So why marry Jim at all? Why this insistence on upheaval?’
I looked at her and kept looking at her as I brought my glass to my lips. I had to make light of it, had to. ‘I dunno, variety?’
‘You’re ruining my life for variety’s sake?
‘I’m not ruining your life! There’s more to your life than me! And I’m marrying Jim because I love him, I do, and this feels like…’ I couldn’t say ‘adventure’. ‘…progress.’ (p82)
It gets to us all eventually doesn’t it, reality finally sets in, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning when. This often coincides with finding that right person to settle down with. The big question remains though – Is Jim the right one for Laura? Is ‘progress’ enough? This dilemma is essentially the crux of the novel.
Although there are some very funny scenes, this is actually a rather dark novel – it’s Laura’s life, warts and all, so much more than just girls behaving badly. The highs (some literally) and lows come one right after another. For instance, in one chapter she goes home to visit her parents – as it starts, she is in the loo:
I ducked as a jet of fine mist shot towards my face from the automatic air freshener on the medicine cabinet. I shook the remaining water off my hands and stepped to the other side of the bathroom. Pssssssshhhhhht! Another shot fired from a second air freshener on top of the toilet cistern.
I crouched and shielded my eyes, peered up through the gaps between my fingers. Above me a nimbostratus of ‘Cashmere Woods’ began to precipitate.
‘All right in there?’ My dad’s voice on the landing beyond the door.
I unlocked the door, opened it. There he was in his green plaid shirt, grinning, hunched, visibly thrilled he’d heard me swear.
I loved this encounter. However, just further down the page we read, ‘The effects of the chemo were showing.’ – taking us from the surreal perfumed world to the real one again.
Unsworth has plenty to say about the state of the nation for young women and what forms feminism takes today. Tyler, being a brash foreigner is her own woman and appears at ease with herself; Laura is less sure about the choices that are winging her way.
This is a rather character driven novel – there isn’t a huge amount of plot – it rambles along, going from near drowning in pinot grigio to Laura waxing lyrical about Yeats. A cover quote from Caitlin Moran calls it ‘Withnail with girls’ and that fits rather well, especially as it ends up in the Lake District at one point. It was funny, whimsical, filthy, moving, frequently frustrating – I often wanted to tell Laura to pull herself together, ha! but always an enjoyable read, although I breathed a sigh of relief at the end. Laura and Tyler were quite hard work, in a good way. (8/10)
I shall leave you with one of Laura’s dad’s jokes that she tells the vicar whilst having a fag-break in the graveyard after Tyler’s niece’s christening:
‘Higgs Boson walks into a church. Priest says. ‘Thank God you’re here! We can’t have Mass without you.’ ‘
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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. Pub by Canongate, paperback, 256 pages.