I’m not sure what I expected from Emily Spurr’s second novel, Beatrix and Fred (Text Publishing 2023), but what I got was completely outside even the imagination of my expectations. This beautifully written novel is strangely compelling and weirdly fascinating. It is odd, obtuse, remarkable, experimental, unique and original. It is funny and tender, light-hearted and serious, somehow both relatable and incomprehensible.

It begins with Beatrix, a character very like Eleanor Oliphant, with no friends except Ray, and they barely tolerate each other. The closest thing she has to a companion is her moth-eaten stuffed canary, Horatio. Beatrix drinks alone, at home, a lot. She thinks about ending her life.

And then she meets an elderly woman with a fluff of grey hair and a bad hip, Fred. Well, they ‘meet’ technically after Beatrix discovers Fred has been stalking her. But why? Fred is quirky, smart and wise, with an endearing sense of humour and an all-encompassing knowledge (and opinions) about the world. She is … something else. Different. Beatrix can’t put her finger on exactly what.

Then something happens to Ray, and the real Fred is revealed. And everything changes.

This is the strangest story about humanity, the brain, parasites, life, menopause, aging, loneliness, friendship, mental health, mental illness, sacrifice, love, bonding, the ethereal and reality. The style reminded me a little of Jane Rawson’s writing. There is something transcendent happening here … something incomprehensible and outlandish, otherworldly and creepy and cruel. And yet this story is also about what it is to be human, how we relate to others, the repercussions of our actions and choices. Beatrix must make an agonising decision … if she’s wrong, bad things might happen. If she’s right, even worse things might happen.

Much of the book is dialogue, and when Spurr writes, you can hear the characters speaking. It feels natural and authentic. Both Beatrix and Fred are complex and unforgettable.

I’m still not sure I understand what this book is about, but I think that is perhaps the point. That life is a mystery, but it is short and we should make of it what we can. I feel like this is the kind of book from which different readers will take different things. Frustrating on a surface level because things are not explained to us in an expected and comprehensible way, nevertheless as the book progresses, and many more different threads are added to the narrative, and the general supposition becomes more and more impossible, we are compelled to keep reading, to find out what impossible looks like.

Beatrix and Fred is for readers who like books that are the opposite of obvious, that stretch their brains and their understanding of ‘normal’, that challenge reality and present an alternative universe. Exciting and original writing that is warm, tender, bleakly funny and contemplative about the human condition.