Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

Hearing two friends explain a private joke or retell a story about their ‘hilarious’ hi-jinx is:

a) boring
b) tedious
c) I guess you had to be there
d) brilliant if written by Emma Jane Unsworth

The answer is d).

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth is a spiky little story about Laura and her best friend Tyler. For years they’ve partied hard. Very, very hard.

“We’d been out. Holy fuck, had we been out. A montage of images spooled through the brainfug. Fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools…”

“In the unisex toilets I got talking to a man who said his name was ‘Chicken Sandwich’. He slipped me a green pill. I split in with Tyler and she said she’d got two Valiums for us later from the doorman. We danced like wardrobes.”

Animals is also the story of a tug-of-war. Because there’s Laura’s fiancé, Jim. Jim doesn’t run with the same crowd as Laura and Tyler. In fact, he’s a tee-totaling classical pianist who spends a lot of time on tour. He’s also had enough of Tyler. And whilst Laura has long been a willing accomplice in Tyler’s escapades, the hangovers are getting a little harder to take, the dead-end job a little boring, and people around her are trading wine bottles for baby bottles.

“The memories we’d made tonight would not be new ones even though they might look like it on the surface.”

Unsworth pulls in a handful of minor characters that serve to highlight Laura and Tyler’s directionless existence, notably Jean, Tyler’s sister, who has a new baby, and Marty, the academic who appears to have the fine balance between work and wine all sorted.

You know when you physically ‘feel’ a book that you’re reading (and I don’t mean holding it in your hands)? I mean when you are completely and wholly caught up in the characters and whatever they’re doing. In this case, I felt the buzz of the party and then wrung-out by the hangovers, like it was me staying up until 4am drinking vodka. It’s a rare thing for an author to achieve (and last time I felt that way was over Kerry Hudson’s brilliant Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – in fact, there are parallels between both books).

There were parts of Animals that made me cringe. It’s graphic, filthy and no detail is spared (did you hear about the time there was a tick living in Laura’s pubes?!). It’s very good writing. And you move from the pills, the vomit and the sticky carpet to descriptions that are surprisingly delicate and tender (even if they are peppered with ‘fucks’) –

“He looked at me. Oh. Give me a glance between two lovers on any day and I will show you a hundred heartbreaks and reconciliations, a thousand tallies and trump cards. And still there is something that survives beyond the sham of domesticity, beyond the micro-promises and micro-power-shifts, and that is the motherfucking miracle.”

Ultimately, it’s a story about loss – loss of control, loss of relationships.

“Maybe that’s why we fuck things up – so that peace, when it comes, feels like enough.”

Why did I love it? It was funny, it was fast-paced, it got to the core of long friendships. The sub-plots, if you take the time to reflect, are masterful – Laura’s dying dad and his obsession with the Mars Rover jostle against speculation over the state of Jean’s perineum. Unsworth doesn’t avoid the serious issues or make Laura and Tyler’s seedy life appear glamorous – her anti-heroes are real, lost, and honest.

“Where were my allies? My sad captains? Those moon sick girls I drank with over long winters behind the bowling alleys, driven there in cars we didn’t know. Those times when we were all strangers and everything was so far away but all we needed to do was run towards it. I had not grown much. I had not reached anywhere. I was still running. When I wasn’t lying down.”

4/5 The story might not be for everyone but everyone can acknowledge good writing. I could almost add another half-star for the scene where Tyler drives a tram.

There’s a lot of wine in Animals.

“Why do we keep trying with rosé?” I said. “Because it feels like a compromise when you don’t know whether you want red or white. Rosé, you think, it’s the natural choice, straight down the middle. But it’ not, it’s fucking shit.”

So I’ve cleverly offset the rosé-hate with bacon-love: Brick Chicken with Rosé Wine and Bacon.




16 responses

    • The style reminded me of Kerry Hudson and Caroline Smailes, both of whose books I have really liked. Have already bought Unsworth’s debut, ‘Hungry, the Stars, and Everything’ which is about a restaurant critic (which will no doubt be a good pick for my foodie-literature challenge).

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