Title: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Publisher: Tin House Books
Publication date: 4 June 2020
Genre: Adult | Contemporary
Rep: Lesbian, sapphic
Page extent: 354 pages
One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.
Content warnings: suicide (graphic description in prologue, mentioned throughout), animal death, graphic description of dead animals, killing animals (on page and mentioned), blood and gore (related to taxidermy work), cheating, brief scene of underage sexual assault between Bryce’s mother and Jessa, teen pregnancy
Do you ever read a book that you just look at the Goodreads rating and go ‘what the actual fuck were all these other people reading?’ The award for the Everyone Else on Goodreads is Wrong award this year goes to Mostly Dead Things! Oh my god, I loved it so much?! Why does it have such a low rating?!
Mostly Dead Things is a very strange book, about a taxidermist whose father commits suicide, and mother starts making erotic art out of her taxidermy animals in response. It follows a family in the wake of this tragedy, but a family which is also still reeling from a tragedy years earlier: Bryce, wife to a brother and sleeping with his sister, who left the family and her children and never returned.
Our three main characters are:
- Bryce: I’m starting with Bryce because although she is by no means the main character (in fact, she does even appear on page in the present time), she is the thread that holds these characters together. She is the girl who loved a sister and a brother, married and had kids with one, and then ran away one day, leaving her children behind. She is the one who still has such a tight grip around each member of this family, who have never healed from when she left them behind.
- Milo: the brother of the family, the one who turned away from the family taxidermy business because he threw up at the sight of his father working on the animal carcasses. He is the one who, to Jessa, came into her friendship with Bryce and took her away, married her, and loved her in a way that Jessa couldn’t provide.
- And finally we have Jessa: we follow the book from Jessa’s POV. She is the taxidermist of the family, and the one who has to hold the family together. She must do this, because her father designed his suicide so she would be the one to find him, because he knew she would be able to handle it, and so it is his last request to her, in a way. But Jessa is stuck in the past. In between the present story, we get short extracts from the past, when Jessa was a teen and fell in love with her best friend, Bryce. We see glimpses of this childhood and see the hold that Bryce still has over this family, even after she left years before. Jessa is so deeply scarred and broken from this love affair that she effectively destroys everyone around her, even as she tries to hold them all together. I thought Jessa was just perfectly written: the raw pain she feels on every single page binds this story together expertly and despite her many, many flaws, you can’t help but hope that she is able to heal and move on.
Mostly Dead Things is a book about pain and grief and love. It’s a hard book to feel happy as you read, because there is so much raw pain in this novel. Following a family that has been broken, this book doesn’t shy away from creating powerful, hugely gutrenching moments that felt like someone was clawing me open. It has been so long since I’ve had such an intense reading experience. This book is so sensual and visceral and it creates such an intensity that you feel as cut open as these characters are. It just sucks you into the hot muggy world of Florida and you feel as if you’ve been transplanted there, as if the writing actually transports you to the swamps of Florida.
The fact that these characters are such horrible people and that I loved them all the same is just? Amazing? The fact that I was rooting for the family to find each other again, rooting for them to tear each other open in agony so they could heal in the wake of such a tragedy. The way this family were broken and torn apart juxtaposed with the way the animals were broken and torn apart and then lovingly were healed again was just *chef’s kiss*
GOD THIS WAS JUST SO FUCKING GOOD, Goodreads reviewers whhhyyyyyy?! I loved this one so much. It is intense and visceral and I had one of the best reading experiences of the year. What a fucking fantastic debut novel.