This second, Stella Prize shortlisted novel from Stephanie Bishop has been described by some as ‘domestic fiction’. For me, the term domestic subjugates this beautifully articulate book to the often dismissed realm of women’s fiction.
This is a family drama written in prose reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. It follows the marriage of Charlotte and Henry after the birth of their first child, and maps that difficult, lonely struggle of a young mother caring for young children. The pair move to Australia in hope that the weather will ‘cure’ Charlotte of her sickly state, but instead she suffers from a bone-aching longing for home. What is home? Is it something we carry around within ourselves? Or a place?
This is a book I will carry around with me as it echoes in the dark chambers of my person. Beyond this I’m left surprised that there are so few books mapping this territory, territory that so many know intimately, but only now are we beginning to charter.
Here is Bishop with a brilliant insight – only one of many illuminating moments – on growth:
“How strange it is to see, every day, the stark evidence of a person’s disappearance, quite indistinguishable from a person’s becoming. Those early versions of ourselves, she thinks, that vanish over an ordinary course of days.”
Verla and Yolanda wake up to find themselves drugged and abducted in a remote part of Australia. Whatever this place is, they have had no choice in coming here. Like a prison sentence, except they have committed no crime, and there was no jury. They are paying the price for their involvement in sex crimes and misdemeanors – victim, or no.
This difficult though well-written book reminded me of a female version of Lord of the Flies. Away from the social mores and structures of everyday Australian society, these women are debased and de-identified. From this base, almost animal, level they rebuild themselves, taking their cues from the harsh land they wander.
Wood uses this allegorical tale to explore notions of contemporary misogyny, and in doing so provokes thought, disgust, anger and recognition that there is truth in this distopian tale. While brilliant, this book rubbed my fur the wrong way. A difficult but important read which will provoke much thought and discussion at this month’s book club.
The bookstore where I work has only sold one copy of this book: to me. I found it hard to get into, and it’s sat on my bedside drawers for months. Please not another story about a 20-something guy struggling to come to terms with his existence. Life is so hard when you’re a white man.
And yet. Yet. It is beautifully written. Emily Bitto – author of The Strays, a recent book based loosely on the 1940s modernist movement in Melbourne, (a book that I really liked) – calls it a ‘painterly work’. Fever of Animals is painterly, clever and darkly funny, if a little self-obsessed.
Our protagonist, Miles, a failed painter coming to terms with his father’s death and relationship break down with Alice, goes on a quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu. At times, the quest is more about Alice (the first of many too-thin girls he chases only to push them away), sometimes about death and oftentimes about art and existence. It’s in this layering of stories and thoughts and moments that the true meaning of the novel comes about. The structure – at times – seems to mimic surrealist devices, particularly when Miles is in Romania, and would translate well to an art film, looping between dream states and non-narrative montages, then back to reality (in inverted commas).
Despite not wanting to enjoy this book, I know it affected me because part way through I found myself Googling Emil Bafdescu, the artist whom fictional Miles is obsessed with. I laughed when I discovered that Bafdescu is an entirely fictional character, so convinced was I that he was a real artist. I was not convinced that this was entirely a work of fiction – the author and his main character both being named Miles – and yet perhaps here lies its cleverness.
Like any existential quest, I don’t know that any of us are closer to holding some knowable, absolute truth about life or death. But the novel reaches a very fine conclusion in a bar in Berlin. And I really, really enjoyed reading it.
So Miles Allinson, I’ll let you win this time. But if I see you in a bar I’m going to challenge you to an arm wrestle. See how you fare against a not-thin girl.