As with The Luminous Sea, the cover of this lured me right in. Covers with sea creatures on them always catch my eye, so when I saw this book on the “new book” shelf at the library, I grabbed it.
The first thing I noticed when flipping through the book is that all the chapters are named after either sea creatures or land mammals, and one of the three sections of the book is called “The Whale has Exploded”. And this, quite literally, is what happens. (The following quote [which is only a part] is very graphic, but so well-done I can feel it and smell it and taste it.)
The whale’s blubber opened like a blossom. A bubble of exhumed insides appeared in the centre of the gash, its split mouth widening. The opening hissed. Blood emerged not as liquid but as mist. A spray of gas slapped Julie and painted her face. She scrambled back, shielded her eyes, the taste of aspirin and iron infecting her mouth. The whale’s intestines crowned in the opening, then spooled out of its body, looped in the air. Snakes of it twisted and spun. The seagulls screamed louder.
The beached whale is only the beginning; soon followed by the death of raccoons and skunks, mice and crows, even a moose and some caribou. I know what you’re thinking… Maybe a book with so much animal death will be too hard to read? But the animal deaths are background only to the main narrative. And they don’t feel “real” in the sense that we know animals don’t usually go around committing suicide*. In this story, however, the animals seem to be serving a purpose – sacrificing themselves for the greater good. (“This is a novel of great loss, but even greater love.” — Alexander MacLeod)
So, what exactly is going on? Marty Bird is a Gulf War veteran who suffers from PTSD. He longs for oblivion, but has been hanging in there for the sake of his daughter, Julie. Julie is home for a visit when strange things start happening, one being the mysterious deaths of a variety of wildlife – it seems as though the animals are ending their own lives. (“Marty Bird’s deepest desires seem to echo through the natural world.”)
Like some people desired sports cars or country villas, he desired to die. For his heart to stop seizing. For his blood to settle in his veins. For his synapses to stop shrieking. To be still and permanent, trustworthy and even. Death was shiny and smooth. A warm and still lake.
In addition, a mysterious woman shows up and quickly worms her way into Marty’s life. Known as Jennie Lee Lewis (JLL), she’s a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator and has the whole town whipped into a frenzy. When Marty goes missing, JLL thinks she knows where he might have gone. Following her hunch, the two women embark on a road trip, leaving a “trail of animal death behind them”.
As they passed through town, Julie noticed that the people in Port Braid were no longer walking around covering their faces. The town no longer used oxygen. It breathed whale. The rot had settled fully into the pores of the town, a steam that softened the residents’ skin and replaced their oils with its own.
With new insight into her dad’s life and past experiences, it is Julie’s inner journey that this story is exploring. What is her Dad, JLL, and the universe trying to tell her?
Humans are rememberers, she thought. Appreciators. They take this job so the caribou, the dark gliding whales, the pallid bats, mean something, and so they themselves do too.
Strange and unique, creative and surprising.
Land Mammals and Sea Creatures is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, along with Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page (my review), Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, and The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson.
*Just after reading this book, I was listening the CBC Radio and coincidentally heard a story about a flock of starlings diving into the ground for no apparent reason.
Foreward Review: “Land Mammals and Sea Creatures’s magical realism is dark and apocryphal. On this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, the only clear signal is distress. As Julie, Marty, and the mysterious stranger traverse illuminating fictions and inexplicable animal suicides, Neale never lets you forget that humans are animals too.”