Ella Baxter’s debut novel NEW ANIMAL (Allen and Unwin 2021) is primarily about sex, death and grief.
Amelia is a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business and is used to rearranging the dead for funerals, mostly to comfort their loved ones. She enjoys her job but it’s a little awkward explaining to potential lovers what she does for work. She has difficulty getting close to people and manages her social anxiety by using men for sex; hurried, no-strings-attached, aggressive and careless sex that soothes some deep need for her but also keeps these men, strangers she meets online, at arm’s length. She hasn’t processed what happened to Daniel, and this revolving door of guys allows her to procrastinate having to deal with it. When her mum has an accident, Amelia’s life is thrown into even more turmoil. She does not have the skills to deal with grief and she doesn’t know how to cope with all of her intense feelings. Her two fathers (one biological and one stepfather) provide different kinds of comfort for her, but it is when she ventures into a Tasmanian BDSM club that she really allows herself to let go and to escape her own tortuous, circuitous thinking.
This book has been described as wild, original, deeply uncomfortable, laugh-out loud funny, wise, profane, raw and gutsy. It is all of these things. It is also very confronting – readers are immersed in content that might shock and disturb them. It is a very similar style to Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, and if you enjoyed that book then this will probably also resonate.
The set-up is made for a hilarious narrative – the funeral parlour, Amelia’s use of sex to numb her feelings, the weird and wacky circumstances of the BDSM club, and there are parts of this book that are very funny. There are also themes of grief and loss that are poignant and moving.
I suspect, however, that I am not the key demographic for this story. I found it difficult to sympathise with Amelia (but perhaps this was the point?) I think that for a certain reader this book will no doubt strike a chord of truth and honesty, of vulnerability, of the raw exposure and examination of feelings that will leave that reader feeling that they have been truly seen. And while that may not be me, I can still admire the originality and edginess of the writing; the lines the author is prepared to cross, and the new terrain or ground she is willing to break. She is testing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. She is unafraid to write a female protagonist that is gutsy and confronting and who makes choices that the reader may find unusual.