Book review: Beatrix & Fred, Emily Spurr

Two loners and their odd, off-kilter relationship.
Beatrix & Fred. Image is a black and white headshot of the author on the left, she has dark hair and polo neck jumper. On the right is a blue book cover with the title and a dead (upside down) canary at the bottom of the image.

Beatrix lives alone except for a stuffed canary named Horatio. Her colleague Ray is her only friend and they are not particularly close. The rest of her office actively dislikes her and she has nothing but scorn for them. She has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. At the start of the novel, she encounters an elderly woman named Fred who stops her from jumping in front of a train. Like Beatrix, Fred is largely alone in the world.  

You may think, like I did, that from this set-up the arc of the novel will follow a predictable trajectory: an unlikely friendship will form between the two loners and they will start to reconnect to the world around them. Perhaps Fred will die in a tear-jerking moment at the end, her final days having been redeemed through her friendship with Beatrix, and Beatrix will be left feeling emboldened to keep living her life on her own terms.

I won’t say too much about what does happen, except that my supposition about the direction of Emily Spurr’s plot does an injustice to her originality. This novel – her second after 2021’s A Million Things – is far from predictable. At its best it is surprising, amusing and moving.

Despite its originality, however, Beatrix & Fred does at times settle into a predictable pattern. This is partly because Beatrix’s isolation does not allow Spurr to explore many perspectives. Beatrix’s sardonic worldview is matched by Fred’s and there is not much opportunity for departure from their cynical exchanges. 

Indeed, there are not many other characters in the novel at all. The next most prominent character is the AI-powered therapy app that Beatrix uses to monitor her mood. To the extent that Spurr explores other bit part players (Ray, for example, and Beatrix’s colleagues) I found them less convincingly drawn than her protagonists and did not always find their behaviour realistic.

Read: Book Review: Ordinary Gods and Monsters, by Chris Womersley

The degree of antipathy Beatrix’s colleagues seem to feel towards her seemed convenient for the narrative but not wholly believable. Those reservations do not strike at the novel’s core, however, because it is really about the relationship between Beatrix and Fred, which proves to be rich and strange enough to sustain a novel. 

Beatrix & Fred, Emily Spurr
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922790415
Pages: 416pp
Publication Date: 29 August 2023
RRP: $32.99

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.