Ella Baxter’s debut novel New Animal is a soulful and intimate comedy that fearlessly questions our attitudes towards death and sex. The novel’s profound descriptions of the body provide an anchor for Baxter’s honest and tender depictions of grief, which are contrasted with amateur BDSM experiences.
Giving us an unusual insight into the business of death in particular, the protagonist, Amelia, is a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business, a job she enjoys but finds emotionally challenging. Amelia throws herself back into the world of the living by indulging in casual sex, quickly discarding the men she meets after use. Here the blurb on the back cover is misleading as it suggests Amelia is looking for a long-term relationship. The novel instead focuses on her sexual and financial independence.
Like most young adults, Amelia struggles to set boundaries with her family and finds their expectations of her exceedingly difficult to manage. Following her mother’s accident, she does the only thing that makes sense to her; she runs, returning to Tasmania to be with her biological father. Here, the sharp reminders of her mother are muted, the colours faded. As Amelia says in the book, ‘If anyone ever asks me how I dealt with this grief, I will tell them honestly: by killing the light of everything that reminded me of her.’
Even in Tasmania, Amelia uses sex to tether herself to the world of the living. Following a confronting encounter in a BDSM club, she is quickly seduced by the appearance of complete control over another person’s body. Some darkly humorous scenes follow where Amelia struggles to set the clear boundaries BDSM requires, ultimately forcing her to confront everything she’s running from.
While readers are unlikely to have many of these experiences themselves, the embalming and BDSM scenes are surprisingly relatable. This is largely because of Baxter’s focus on the body as a vessel that both connects us to each other and carries us through life. However, Baxter’s candid voice and cynical humour also make the book emotionally taxing. Readers should be aware of the graphic depictions of death, suicide, and sex, which could trigger past traumas.
Because the novel is short at just 240 pages, the dynamics with Amelia’s family often take a backseat to her sexual exploits. This makes the story feel underdeveloped as the nuances of these complicated relationships become the backbone for one of Amelia’s toughest choices, her own independence away from her childhood home. However, all of this makes New Animal beautifully dark, with Amelia’s self-indulgence capturing some strong descriptions of her body’s physical response to grief as well the ways grief can isolate the mind. Ultimately, this novel is a character portrait that honours the body and treats it as a sentimental item we leave behind.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
New Animal by Ella Baxter
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Release date: 2 March 2021