“Book Review: Mostly Dead Things”
Reviewed by Joe Walters
A taxidermy novel about familial hand-me-downs and the quest for vulnerability.
Mostly Dead Things has finally arrived. This highly anticipated first novel from Kristen Arnett packs a punch with its relentless excavation of a grieving family on the verge of finally connecting. So curl up next to your neighborhood swamp and whip out the boxed wine. This LGBTQ literary novel is about to get you feeling.
Jessa-Lynn is the heir to the throne of her father’s taxidermy business—and his repressive personality. She knows that “want” and “need” are a couple of sure-fire ways to make yourself disappointed, so she steers clear of anything that might mend her broken heart. When she finds her father dead and bloody in the back of their shop with a suicide note addressed to her, she knows it’s her job to keep the family free from pain and from each other.
“What did my family need from me? What was it that I was supposed to give them?”
After his death, the family members cope in the only ways they know how. Her brother Milo searches for purpose without his wife Brynn in any place that isn’t his job. Her mother constructs weirdly sexual scenes with the taxidermized animals in the front of the family shop. And Jessa battles with her inability to connect after Brynn (her sister-in-law and love of her life) left town and never came back.
As much as it’s a story about Jessa and her grieving family, it’s also about Brynn. While Milo displays his emotional side of missing her, Jessa pursues unavailable women and refuses to get too close to vulnerability. There’s something so very honest about Jessa’s adoration of Brynn, offering the reader the opportunity to pick up the pieces of Jessa’s heart and see if she’ll be willing to share it again.
Mostly Dead Things is like literary piecemeal. We venture through the novel discovering the subtle nuances of each character’s desires and pitfalls, weaving in and out of their past traumas and present afflictions. The novel is structured in a way that separates the past from the present, with every other chapter interjecting a jolt of the past that Jessa is trying to stay away from. But it always makes its way in.
It’s not easy for Jessa to admit how she feels, but with the help of author Kristen Arnett’s intrusive and deeply honest style, we can’t help but attach ourselves to Jessa and root for her to overcome her own flawed survival mechanisms.
“We were a family of taxidermists. We were collectors, dismantlers, and artisans. We pieced together life from the remnants of death. Animals that might have weathered into nothing got to live on indefinitely through our care. Our heart was in the curve of a well-rendered lip smoothed over painted teeth….”
Because of Arnett’s subtle approach and unique storyline, Mostly Dead Things becomes virtually unputdownable. It’s a slow burn, but it offers the unique opportunity for readers to understand intimately all the things that make up our main character and see if she has what it takes to help herself improve.
Fans of Charles Baxter will love diving into Kristen Arnett’s writing. This thing’s got humor, heart, and one hell of an emotional arc. Like the taxidermy of humans, Mostly Dead Things helps “animals meant to look ferocious turn vulnerable” at the hands of a truly skilled stylist in Arnett.
Publisher: Tin House Books
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