★ ★ ★ ★
Laura Kaye’s novel, English Animals, is an impressive debut. A domestic drama set in the English countryside that gives a fresh perspective on art, belonging, temptation and sex, physical and emotional violence, and cultural differences. Mirka is a Slovakian woman who believes she has accepted a job as an au pair for Sophie and Richard, but upon arriving learns that she will be Richard’s taxidermy assistant while also helping Sophie run their many business ventures as their estate is used as a B&B, wedding venue, and gathering spot for shooting parties.
Told through the protagonist, Mirka’s, perspective, we get an intimate and delicate look into what life is like at Fairmount Hall. English is not Mirka’s first language, and the author did brilliantly at depicting that difficulty of understanding and communicating for a non-native speaker, but also the progress that she makes the further along in the story as time goes on. The style of writing is easy to read, I breezed through this in two sittings. It’s beautifully written in its own simplicity that makes this domestic drama feel like a light read despite the topics and subplots. Sophie and Richard are unconventional, quite toxic in their own ways that seem to feed off of each other, and then there is Mirka, who is complicated and vulnerable but straightforward and observant–and when it comes down to it, trying to discover herself while being in a country that is far different from her homeland. I thought the character development for Mirka was immense by the closing page of the novel, it truly showed her growth despite being in a difficult position that was deceptive and detrimental.
At times it was a bit tedious because of how simple it is written, but it was authentic when it came to seeing this story through Mirka’s perspective, considering she is not a native English speaker. It is a rather slow, character-driven story, which I quite like but some may not. And while this book pulled in all sorts of directions in its short length, in the end, it was a compelling story with complex characters that were engaging and believable.
I do want to note that if you are not comfortable with the animal subject matter, like taxidermy or animal deaths, this may be a book that you want to read. While I do not support either, I was intrigued by the plot to pick it up and I thought it was well handled and done respectfully. It is actually discussed in the novel that Mirka is against taxidermy at first and then throughout as time goes on, she addresses it and tries to come to an understanding.
When Mirka gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their argumentative and turbulent marriage. Mirka is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break two years ago with her family in Slovakia, Mirka finds to her surprise that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in.
Paperback, 368 pages
Published September 7th 2017 by Abacus